Sharing the Surplus
Designing a Community Garden
to Grow the Food Bank
Barb Fath


IN THE COMMUNITY WHERE I LIVE, in Warren County, Ohio, McMansions and high-end subdivisions exist alongside old farms and small villages. There are also noticeable pockets of poverty. The community has been hit particularly hard by job losses due to the closing of a large employer.

For the past several years, I have been volunteering at our local food bank: Little Miami Food Service, named after the river that forms our watershed. We receive generous donations of processed, boxed, and canned foods but little in the way of fresh produce. Early last winter I approached Carol Miller, also a food bank volunteer, about the possibility of starting a community garden to help supplement the processed food. Although many people in the area own land, most do not have gardens, or they live in trailers, apartments, or in other situations that prevent them from raising food.

We considered various forms the garden could take and decided against individual plots for the first year. We felt that if we set up individual plots, people might not care for them properly, and we very much wanted the first-year garden to be a success.

Our pilot garden in 2009 had to teach us what we needed to know: How many volunteers would we get? How much community interest would the garden generate? We planned to teach gardening to anyone who wanted to learn, especially food bank participants.

We were energized and determined. So, we contacted each other almost daily with ideas. Carol went to area churches for donations, while I interviewed other community garden and CSA organizers for tips. The Civic Garden Center in Cincinnati was helpful and suggested I visit and click on “Learn” for good information. The site was useful.

The food bank is located in a late 19th-century school building which is owned by the local township. In front of the food bank there is open land which also belongs to Salem Township. Early in February we sent a letter to the township trustees detailing what we planned and asking to be added to the agenda for their next meeting. Carol and I presented our petition. After some discussion of the idea, the trustees asked me what size the garden would be. This was one area Carol and I had not discussed. I made a quick mental calculation of how much land I could manage by myself should no volunteers be forthcoming, and asked for 20’ x 30’. The trustees agreed the garden was a good idea, but they needed to check their insurance and a few other details. Soon afterward I was notified that we had been given permission to use the land with the proviso that we should keep it looking nice and clean up at the end of the growing season.

We then sent letters to church groups, scout troops, master gardeners, high schools and vocational schools, garden clubs, and extension agents asking for volunteers and donations. Unfortunately, these letters elicited little response. We had the most success soliciting donations and getting volunteers through personal contact. The Civic Garden Center donated seeds. Carol got her church youth group to donate money for fencing, and the Sunday school kids agreed to start flower seeds. I asked two of my neighbors to start tomato and pepper seedlings, and they asked a local farmer to donate fencing for trellises. The president of the food bank got a nursery to donate some plants. Two of my friends as well as my veterinarian agreed to help us plant.

In March, we handed out fliers at the food bank with an invitation to the garden opening and asking for volunteers with “no experience necessary.” Several food bank recipients did approach us to say they would help. But, even with a reminder call, they did not show on the day we had mutually agreed upon. A few people said they wanted to start their own gardens and asked for advice. Some people gave their own gardening tips.

Tilling as archaeology

Our future garden was a grassy area so we decided to have it roto-tilled. It was early April before we found someone to do this work. We had quite a bit of rain and it was early May before
it was completed. We had hoped for a second roto-tilling to help with weed control, but after two more weeks of rain, decided to proceed with forming raised beds.

It was obvious that we had good soil. It was dark and friable to a depth of between six and eight inches. It was also obvious that the area had been used as a dumping ground by the school at one time. There were chunks of coal, broken bits of glass and ceramics, as well as small unidentified objects. One of the township trustees mentioned that the land had been used as pasture for many years and that Salem Township bought it for a park but never developed it. There were dandelions, chickweed, clover and other good “weeds” in the land so the pasture had apparently not sprayed with herbicides but just cut with the clippings left on the ground.
Despite the debris, the soil turned out to be wonderful!

After the rototilling, Carol’s husband, their neighbor, and I raked the soil to remove vegetation, rocks, coal, and other debris. We made a group decision to leave a grass walkway three feet wide around the garden and to erect the fence around all of that. Carol’s husband and a neighbor offered to mow and trim the area. and they did so until garden plants grew into the pathways and made them too narrow for the mower. While Carol’s husband and their neighbor put up fencing around the plot, I began digging raised beds.

The area we chose for the garden has a slight slope to the southwest and gets full sun all day. The long side of the garden (30 ft.) runs southeast to northwest, and we laid out the raised beds with the same orientation. This enabled runoff to be caught in the walkways between beds. We determined to put shorter plants toward the southeast end so none of the plants would shade others. A two-foot wide walkway was dug in the center of the plot running parallel to the short sides for better access to the beds. Five beds approximately 14’ x 3’ were arranged on each side of the center aisle, all ten beds parallel to the long side of the plot with 18” walkways between them. We dug soil from all the walkways and used it to raise the beds.

Quite a few people were puzzled by the raised beds. Some thought we were going to plant lots of potatoes in the walkways, covering them with the soil in the beds, some thought of sweet potatoes in the beds, one commented that it didn’t look like a garden but a cemetery. Several returned later to see how the beds worked. They liked what they saw—one commenting that we got more in that small space than he did in a larger garden.

As the garden took shape, I approached people who live nearby to introduce myself and let them know what we were doing. I also attended another Salem Township meeting to thank the trustees for letting us use the land and visited them again at the end of the growing season to share our experiences. I asked permission to use the land for 2010 and to turn in an official report. We sent notes or made phone calls to thank each donor and volunteer. We contacted the local newspaper reporter who gave us some good publicity. This resulted in other donations.

On Memorial Day, three of us planted butternut squash and red beet seeds between zucchini, wax beans, collards, mustard greens, carrots, sunflowers with cucumbers to climb on them, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and peppers. We trellised lots of tomatoes and half runner beans in the same beds. Marigolds and zinnias went into the end of each bed with nasturtiums around the compost fencing (located in one corner). We scattered parsley, dill, cilantro, and basil. We put a layer of straw on each bed prior to planting. This definitely helped control weeds, as very few appeared in the garden. The straw was also intended to conserve moisture but was barely put to this test as we had a good bit of rain. The flowers were beautiful but also a bit of a problem as some grew huge and blocked the aisles and attracted lots of bees. The bees were great, but also a potential hazard as people came into the garden.

On June 11, we harvested four small bags of collards and mustard greens for the food bank. Soon we were harvesting other produce, but there was often some left over at the end of the day. Since we operate only on Monday and Friday, the food wasn’t fresh the next time we put it out.

Realizing that a new strategy was needed, we began greeting each person who came out of the food bank with their order and asking if they would like anything from the garden. Most people responded positively, asking what was available. As expected, some people did have gardens and didn’t accept the offer, saying they would leave the food for others who needed it more. Some were just not interested. Several people said they didn’t know what they’d do with fresh produce. Many, however, did find something they wanted.

We harvested the vegetables while the recipients waited and most people came into the garden. Some even helped to harvest. A few very young helpers stepped on plants, and one woman harvested entire parsley plants rather than just some leaves. Carol and I felt this was a small price to pay for getting people into the garden. It was often hectic as we averaged one family every five minutes or so through the food bank, which serves over 400 families a month. We limited how much produce each family could take based on what was ready to harvest that day, adjusting the amount as the morning progressed. Two wonderful women, Ruby Edwards and Alice Patience, helped with the garden in 2009 and plan to be part of the 2010 garden.

When school was out for summer, some of the neighborhood kids came over to see what the garden was all about. Soon, they were helping water and weed whenever the mood hit them, and they definitely kept watch over the garden. Carol found this out when she stopped by on a day when the food bank was closed and was asked by the children what she was doing there.

After the tomatoes were finished (they were determinate) the half runners really took off and the zucchini were replaced by more carrots and radishes. Carrots were a definite hit. Many people had never tasted them fresh from the garden before. The greens were followed by Roma beans and the wax beans by fall greens. Our first hard frost came October 18 killing the peppers and beans. There were still some greens, radishes, parsley, and carrots being harvested in November. When the garden was closed for the year, the kale, collards, Swiss chard, mustard greens, and parsley were dug and moved to one of my solar-heated greenhouses for continued use during the winter. A neighbor delivered manure to the garden in late November and after it was spread, we added a thick layer of straw.

We decided to sheet mulch the grass walkway up to the fence and also an area about a foot wide just outside of the fence. This should eliminate the need for mower and weed-whacker next year. We will put cucumbers and beans on the fence and plant a border of flowers and herbs (including many perennials) on the outside of the fence. This will keep the flowers and bees out of walkways and give us over 400 sq. ft. more gardening space.

One added benefit of the garden was the produce a local grower was able to donate. I had been frequenting this grower’s produce stand over the years. We discussed the food bank garden when I stopped by this year. The grower was aware of the food bank and had donated a few times in the past but this year, with me as a contact, donated 240 ears of corn, almost 100 cantaloupes, over 150 pumpkins, and other items. Some other local people also donated smaller amounts of produce from their gardens, and we noted what came in and will try to grow a bit less of these items next year.

This garden was definitely blessed, and the weather was good for growing. The plants grew large and produced lots. We kept track of how much we harvested each day. The total was just over 600 pounds for the season. This was accomplished with a minimum of effort. We worked in the garden when the food bank was open—Monday and Friday mornings, with only a few visits in between. We logged 388 volunteer hours for the garden in 2009. Knowing this will help the bank obtain matching grants, as will the amount of food we donated through the garden. Notes were taken at the end of each day with suggestions for the next garden including how to change our plantings, what produce the recipients liked, what they didn’t, and how to get more volunteers. With this kind of information, we will be much better prepared for success in 2010.

The Salem Township trustees have given permission for the garden for 2010. We have great plans for the year including planting a spring garden, planting fewer tomatoes, more carrots and cabbage, starting more plants in pots for faster succession, and possibly a container planting demonstration area. Recipes and basic directions for preparing items such as squash will be available. We are trying to determine if anyone is interested in individual plots which we will help maintain and take over if they are neglected. In return for use of a plot, participants would give a small amount of their harvest to the food bank. This would necessitate expanding the garden a bit and getting permission to do so.

Everyone at the food bank, the township trustees and workers, and the general community were very supportive of this effort. Some of the small, local businesses I frequent have already agreed to donate materials, plants, and seeds for 2010. This support was one of the keys to our success.

Getting the participants to come into the garden was great. We had a chance to meet them and hear their stories. There were people who lost good-paying jobs and now were working one or even two jobs and still not earning as much as previously. They also lost their health insurance or other benefits. There were people who had lost their homes and gardens, people who had been evicted, and older people with no one to care for them. Many people had lost their vehicles and had borrowed one to get to the food bank, or even walked to get their food. Many people we met had debilitating illnesses and many were undergoing treatment for cancer. There were extended families—children and grandchildren who moved back in with their parents when income was lost. Some people even moved to this area on rumors of good jobs only to find there were none available. A few were recently divorced and trying to get their lives back together. Several confided they sometimes were out of food for themselves and their children. We met people with all sorts of problems, and think about the many people whose stories we’ll never know.

Knowing this, it is no wonder that most of these people are not helping out in the garden or learning to garden. They are struggling to live and keep their children fed and clothed. The garden recipients were very appreciative of the fresh food, and we received thanks, hugs, and smiles from lots of them. I can’t wait for the garden to open again. It’s a great way to share the surplus.

Barb lives on ten acres in Pleasant Plain, Ohio where she and her husband have been developing a permaculture site for the past 20 years.