Area gardeners are pouring the final drops of the growing season into the Gardner Community Garden. Despite the fall equinox on Sept. 23, Bill East, garden volunteer, said the garden is open and continues to produce.
The 4.5-acre garden includes one acre of leased individual growing plots, and approximately four acres of a truly community garden. Volunteers help plant and tend the communal plot, and the crops are donated to several charities.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic civic organization, created the community garden last year. Divine Mercy Catholic Church parish priest Father Joe Cramer planted the idea.
“He caught me going into Mass one day,” East recalled.
Now in its second year, the garden business is booming.
“Last year, we had about 30 plot gardeners,” East said. “This year, we had almost 100.”
But it isn’t only the number of people tending their own gardens at the site increasing. The amount of produce the organization has been able to produce is also up.
“A year ago, for the whole year, we had given away a grand total of 6,000 pounds of produce,” East said. “Already this year, with quite a bit of time left, we’ve given away 7,500 pounds.”
He anticipates being able to donate more food before the growing season is eclipsed by winter.
“One of our biggest crops is yet to come,” East explained. “That’s sweet potatoes. We will do a bunch of sweet potatoes.”
When organizers began planning the garden, a primary goal was to be able to donate produce to those in need. In his spare time, East is a food drive volunteer for Catholic Charities in the Johnson County office. People who receive food assistance rarely get fresh produce.
“It’s really a neat thing to take in a thousand pounds of produce and watch people dig into it,” East said. “They usually get non-perishable items in cans or packages.”
The community garden has donated to a variety of charitable organizations including the Gardner-Edgerton Multi-Service Center, and Meals on Wheels of Gardner. East estimates they’ve given fresh produce to half a dozen different organizations this year.
Initially, garden planners considered setting up a farmers market in town. They quickly learned, however, that most farmers and growers were already taking their produce to larger markets in the area on Saturdays. So organizers shifted their focus to a community garden.
Using acreage donated by the Baker family heirs, the organizers began cultivating plans for a garden to serve the community. And while it isn’t exactly a farmers market, people can partake in the garden’s harvest. Each Saturday morning, volunteers offer produce to the community in exchange for donations.
The donations help the garden grow. In addition to the produce exchange, garden organizers have received several grants, including a $5,000 grant from Kansas State University and a $3,000 grant from the local carpenter’s union.
Thanks to fundraisers, donations, and grants, the garden now boasts a greenhouse to get a jump start on seeds, and a solar panel on the shed. The panel creates just enough energy to provide light to late-night gardeners.
Guests can pick up fresh produce on Saturday mornings for at least a few more weeks, East estimates.
“It will be open as long as we have product,” he said. “There still will be fall stuff that we’ll have for awhile. When you grow stuff, you’re at the mercy of the weather and a whole bunch of stuff.”
Volunteers will accept donations in exchange for fresh produce from 9 a.m. to noon this Saturday, Sept. 27, at the garden, 555 W. Warren Street.
For more information about the community garden including volunteer opportunities, visit www.gardnercommunitygarden.org or search for “Gardner Community Garden” on Facebook.