Community gardens get growing

Michelle Johnson rakes mulch into the rows of her plot in a community garden in Dallas. A portion of the food grown will be donated to the Dallas Emergency Food Corp.

DALLAS -- Michelle Johnson wasn't sure how many people would be interested in her idea for starting a community garden in Dallas this summer.

Because of that, she started small, with just 10 plots. Now, she may be thinking she should have made bigger plans.

The garden plots recently prepared on the property behind the duplex she rents on Uglow Avenue were claimed within two or three weeks and numerous donations to help get the garden growing came in just as quickly.

"It's made this project successful," Johnson said at a recent work party where volunteers, including Dallas High School agriculture students, helped prepare beds for planting. "We didn't know what kind of response we would get."

Now, she's already thinking of expanding the garden for next year. The land, donated by owners Skip and Betty Lowrie, has plenty of room for expansion.

Johnson said the project is meant to benefit more than just the families growing food on the plots. A portion will be donated to Dallas Emergency Food Corp. to help feed the needy. One of the plots will be grown exclusively for the food bank and the produce the families raise and don't use will be donated as well.

Photo by Pete Strong

Mary Shellenbarger gets some planting help from Kami Burggraf, 4, of Independence at Head Start's community garden.

"We will make sure that the community has plenty of fresh produce," Johnson said. "With the hardship that has been on so many families in this economy, I think it is our duty as citizens to help out."

Tracy Swartzendruber, one of the community members tending a plot, said she believes the garden will become a community resource.

It was for her.

Swartzendruber and her neighbor both had garden plots outside their apartments last year, but were told to remove them. They were disappointed to not be able to grow vegetables this year until they heard about Johnson's plan.

"It will be a great community model, for those who have extra space," Swartzendruber said. "I think there is a lot of interest. There are a lot of people who want to do this and don't know how."

The garden, called The Gathering Place Community Garden, is just one opening this summer with a similar mission.

In addition, Mid-Valley Community Action Head Start program in Independence and Dallas Alliance Church have started gardens with the purpose of teaching people how to grow their own food. Others in the area already exist.

Seeing a need to promote healthy eating in the community he serves, Nathan Winegardner, the coordinator for Independence Head Start, applied for a grant to start a garden.

Head Start received the grant from the federal Child Adult Care Food Program and just created a 16-foot-by-8-foot plot, which will provide space for up to four families this summer.

Fruit trees were planted to supplement the garden's harvest of vegetables.

"The goal is to have children learn where their food comes from and for the families to learn healthy eating habits," Winegardner said.

Landon Pegg, the garden coordinator for Dallas Alliance Church, said church leaders have a similar goal.

He said of the 12 plots available at the garden, only two have been taken by church members. Pegg said the effort was an outreach to those in the community who needed a place to grow food. In addition to providing space for gardens, the church is planning to teach people proper growing methods.

"We are actually planning on having a few classes and as people actually start planting we will be coaching them," Pegg said.

Like Johnson, Dallas Alliance and Head Start have a surprising amount of people interested in plots and learning to garden.

"It would be great if we were inspiring them to create gardens of their own," Winegardner said.

Ian Dixon-McDonald, Marion-Polk Food Share's community garden coordinator, said community gardens have increased in popularity in recent years.

"More people are facing economic hardship and people are thinking more critically about where their food comes from," Dixon-McDonald explained. "Growing food in your own backyard or in a community garden is as local as it could be."

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