Veg Out

Tom King fills bags with freshly picked corn, assisted by (from left) Bob Crain, Aubrey Crain and Makenna Kolars.

Gardner-Edgerton parish enjoys harvest more than produce from garden

by Joe Bollig

GARDNER — There was a time when Bob Crain was blissfully ignorant of pigweed.
But that all changed this spring, when he and his wife Suzanne rented two plots at the Gardner Community Garden, a project sponsored by Knights of Columbus, Sacred Heart Council 10407.

“I didn’t know what it was called until we started out here,” he said. “We get it in our yard.”

Now, instead of it being just another anonymous yard weed, pigweed is the enemy that must die. The whole family feels the same way.

“I kill it,” said Aubrey Crain, 11. “I kill it with a sharpened hoe.”

The vicious pigweed battle notwithstanding, the Crains — members of Divine Mercy Parish of Gardner — are having a good time at the newly established garden.

And they are not alone. The Catholic-sponsored garden has drawn people of all faiths from across the community and has distributed the benefit of homegrown, organically produced veggies throughout Gardner and beyond.

Growing the concept

The idea for a community garden originated with Father Joseph Cramer, pastor of Divine Mercy Parish, which was formed from the merger of Sacred Heart Parish in Gardner and Assumption Parish in Edgerton.

“Father Joseph caught me going into Mass and asked me if the Knights would form a farmer’s market,” said Bill East, Grand Knight of Council 10407.

East, who also coordinates food drives for Catholic Charities, formed an ecumenical advisory committee, chaired by Tom King, a local Baptist. Brian Bouttee, a Knight and Divine Mercy parishioner with experience as a commercial gardener, became the technical expert and go-to guy.

East and his cohorts discovered that a community garden would be more practical than a farmer’s market, so East and the advisory committee started looking for land.

Fortunately, the Knights were able to find five acres of cropland immediately south of the church. The current owners, descendants of the Dale and Marcelle Baker Family, gave the Knights an incredible deal on the former corn and soybean field.

“We were expecting to pay $125 an acre, which is the going rate, but they were kind to us and we negotiated a lease for $1 a year,” said East.

Any project needs funding. But the Knights scored again when they secured a $5,000 community garden grant from Kansas State University and a $3,500 grant from the

Carpenter’s Union 315, which was used to build an 18- by 24-foot barn.

Nor can you work a garden without tools. But they got help there, too.

“We did a tool and equipment drive in conjunction with our quarterly food drive,” said East. “We collected everything from rakes, shovels, tillers, a garden tractor and all kinds of stuff. So that has been extremely beneficial. We have a really generous parish.”

A donated skid loader was used to build a gravel road and parking lot on the church side of the property line providing access to the land.

And you can’t grow a garden without water. Jeff Steward, director of Gardner’s parks and recreation department, offered to help construct a water line to the garden from adjoining Westside Park.

“[Steward] was ecstatic that we were going to have a garden,” said East.

When the city couldn’t dig the trench, the garden committee asked a past Grand Knight, who was also director of Rural Water District 7, for help. Through his contacts, they were able to get donated time and equipment.

“Four hours later, we had water in the garden,” said East. “It’s a good example of how this project has come together with a lot of people cooperating.”

Growing community

Father Cramer wanted a project that would promote unity not just in the parish, but across the entire community of Gardner, said East. He was also concerned about the ability of poor families and the elderly to access nutritious food.

The land is divided into about 40 individual and family plots, with the remainder being the communal garden. Individual plots can be rented for $40 for the first plot, and subsequent plots for $35. Families often have multiple plots. People who work in the communal plots can earn “veggie bucks” for their time, which they can redeem for produce.

Some of the smaller plots are tended by 4-H clubs, families and individuals. They also help in the communal section, along with the Knights and the Boy Scout troop they sponsor. The garden workers are from throughout the community and of all backgrounds — just as Father Cramer wanted. When help is needed for the communal plot, the committee sends out text messages.

“I can speak from personal experience that I’ve met a lot of nice people through the garden that I didn’t know six months ago,” said King.

Many of these gardeners are novices, so King and Bouttee have had to teach them the basics.

“So many people have never farmed or gardened before, but they have all the energy and they want to work,” said Bouttee. “They’re fast learners.”

“It’s amazing,” he continued. “You should see the look on people’s faces who’ve never planted a seed before. Next week, the plants are two inches tall, and they’re elated.”
Father Cramer is elated, too.

“The neatest thing is seeing 57 families coming together,” he said. “To see their faces when they’ve done these plots is incredible — it’s worth it. They’ve accomplished something of their own by their own hands.”

He’s proud of the families who have become self-sufficient and help the hungry. But he is also glad that they are  growing closer as a community.

“I’ve been out there and I’ve seen their faces,” said Father Cramer. “They have true pride in being able to do something. It’s their work.”

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