Plans develop for Oaklawn Community Garden’s expansion in 2013

Thanksgiving signals harvest’s end at the Oaklawn Community Garden. But the reasons to give thanks are unending as the project prepares to grow in 2013.

The garden’s third year is expected to include an outreach program that would get fresh produce on the tables of needy area residents.

“It’s expanded more than I thought it would,” said Jonah Curtis, who supervises the garden at 13697 15-Mile Road, on land north of the Oaklawn Life Improvement Center.

This year, the garden comprised 22 soil beds, most rented by local residents while two were used to teach young people about cultivating food. Next year, an additional 14 soil beds will be set up just east of the existing beds. A second youth gardening class also will be offered.

A further goal is to use the new beds to provide food to area domestic shelters and to needy individuals at little or no cost, and explore ways for the garden to have an even greater impact as a community asset, said Curtis, a fitness specialist at the center.

Supportive OLIC members helped inspire the plans, he added.

Janet O’Connell of Marshall, a retired teacher, cultivated one of the soil beds with friends Connie Hubbard and Jane Cain, also of Marshall. Together, they reaped an overabundance of tomatoes and peppers, and at the end of the growing season gathered abandoned produce from adjacent beds.

As a result, the friends donated dozens of pounds of fresh vegetables to the Haven of Rest Rescue Mission, a Battle Creek homeless shelter.

“All that food otherwise would just have been wasted,” O’Connell said, adding that the effort came from a spiritual mission among the friends, all members of a Bible study group.

“It makes me feel good that we can contribute in that way, to help hungry people,” Hubbard said, and Cain and O’Connell proclaimed the garden’s expansion plans an excellent idea.

“We’re going to see even more of a need for such things as the years go on” because of ongoing economic issues, O’Connell said. “If the word gets out, and people become more conscious of how important it is to eat healthy, more people would be interested in growing their own food.”

Curtis was further drawn to encourage food donations when a second boost came from another OLIC member – Carl Gibson, who manages Calhoun County’s Office of Senior Services. Gibson alerted Curtis to the prospect of a grant from the Calhoun County Conservation District.

“If we get the grant, we’ll have a nicer, much more efficient watering system,” Curtis said. The additional funds also would allow roughly half of the new soil beds to be donated outright for use by qualified low-income residents, at no cost.

A decision about the grant is expected in January. Regardless of that outcome, the goal will be to put more surplus fresh produce into the hands of needy people, Curtis said.

Curtis intends to work with Marshall Area Community Services to connect to area residents who need better access to fresh fruits and vegetables. He also hopes Marshall area senior centers will help to involve more senior citizens in gardening at the site.

The garden was launched after Curtis and OLIC Director Rebecca Willis brainstormed about potential programs. Their idea was to promote fitness through promotion of healthy eating habits and the physical work of gardening.

Each 4-by-16-foot soil bed is rented from late April through October, Curtis said. Participants do the weeding and tending, and then keep what they grow. The program provides water, dirt and fertilizer.

“Beginning in the spring, I’ll conduct classes to provide some guidance to people who don’t have much gardening experience,” Curtis said. That class also focuses on preserving the harvest.

The project’s success has been somewhat surprising, Curtis said.

“Actually, I thought things would taper off eventually,” he said. “But, the more people find out about it, the more interested they are.”

To learn more about the 2013 program, call the center at (269) 781-7585.

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