DALLAS — Dean Anderson used to do a lot of things with his kids’ activities through their high school years. However, when they graduated, he wasn’t ready to give up working with youth.
Looking for ideas, he hit upon a creative solution talking with local master gardeners — the Dallas Youth Garden.
Having completed its ninth year, Anderson updated the County Commissioners Nov. 30 about its ongoing success, despite the challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.
Now a 501c3 non-profit that operates under the supervision of Polk County Family & Community Outreach, the Dallas Youth Garden kicked off with a $5,000 economic development grant from the county commissioners. The other half of their total budget comes from in-kind services, private donations and other grants.
They partnered with the Polk County 4H to hire 10 high school kids and two college students to learn the fine art of growing their own garden plot. The students are paid $100 a month and can earn bonuses by the end of year depending upon performance.
“The way it operates, we have a list of tasks, a timesheet, and they manage their days off, track harvest amounts and document their activities on a website,” Anderson said.
Working Tuesdays from 4 to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 to 11 a.m., each intern is responsible for a 25-foot by 50-foot market garden area. Each year, their gardens grow what is needed most by the Family and Community Outreach and Dallas Food Bank.
“Most of our kids don’t know anything about gardening,” Anderson said. “This year we had three returning gardeners. Some had never seen a plant – they didn’t know difference between a pepper and a tomato.”
This season kicked off May 2 with each intern designing their garden then by mid-month, planted radishes, lettuce, summer squash, beans, winter squash, carrots, beets, tomatoes, dill, flowers, onions and cabbages.
This year’s techniques centered on mulching, installing tomato cages and bean fences, weeding and watering. Anderson said they emphasize sustainable garden methods, which includes water conservation. The city of Dallas donates water through Trinity Lutheran Church, which also donates the land.
This year presented many challenges, from the pandemic to the climate. Anderson said the interns were required to wear masks at the outset. That mandate was lifted in June, as long they were working alone in garden or were 6-feet apart. Despite the summer heatwave, the interns were able to donate little over 4,100 pounds of vegetables.
“A little lighter than last year, but given the frequent heat waves, I was very, very happy,” Anderson said.
The Dallas Youth Garden runs through the second week of September and can be extended through October on a voluntary basis.
Due to limitations by the pandemic, participants have missed out, along with other 4H groups, on showing off their green thumbs at the Polk County Fair.
“We’re meeting with 4H at the first of the year to try to figure out the future with fair out,” Anderson said.
He added he’s always impressed by intern feedback when organizers ask what they’ve learned.
“Some respond how they deal with the garden, others how they learned about jobs,” he said. “They included time management, good communication, coming to garden with a plan, staying on track, keeping timesheet, and that it’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you learn from it. And don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially when you’re unsure. It’s better to do that than flounder around.”
He summarized the program’s success with two more numbers from over its nine years – the Dallas Youth Garden has employed 87 young adults who have grown 30,000 pounds of food donations.
Commissioner Jeremy Gordon was impressed with its results.
“This is such an amazing project. It has all the elements of a great project — multiple partners across sectors, all revolving around youth, professionally and as people,” Gordon said. “So, you have my full support. Whatever you need.”
His colleague Lyle Mordhorst concurred.
“Having the kids understand the business aspect and time management, opening their eyes to ‘there is dirt, plant seeds and see what things grow.’ It’s pretty exciting, especially when they go to harvest,” Mordhorst said.
Anderson added the program is always in need of more volunteers. To learn more about Dallas Youth Garden, or to receive its newsletter, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.