Meleah Maynard, University of Minnesota Master Gardener
“Just opening the gate and stepping into the garden filled me with peace. My little plot looked like a bush and I brought my granddaughter [the see it] and she just felt everything with her hand.”—Sabathani gardener
They aren’t visible from the street, but just north of Minneapolis’ Sabathani Community Center, members of the Urban Gardener program are already busy working on plots that will soon be bursting with vegetables. Launched in 2007 with a grant written by Extension Urban Director Barbara Grossman, the program is about much more than gardening. It also aims to build community, help families stretch their dollars a bit further by growing some of their own food and offer information about nutrition and healthy eating.
Hennepin County master gardener Mollie Dean, who has been coordinating the program since its inception two years ago, says interest has grown quickly with over 275 people attending gardening classes so far and more than 55 people crowding into the program’s first class this April. Most participants are first-time gardeners and many of them live in the surrounding neighborhoods. “We’re seeing a lot of young couples this year, but we also have a lot of parents and children, as well as grandparents and grandchildren,” she says.
Photo 1: Group gardening instruction. Terry Straub
To help participants gain the skills they need to be successful gardeners, the program is based on a six-class curriculum (which is currently in the process of being replicated for use by other counties statewide), including lessons on soil, planning a garden, design, selecting plants and maintenance. Those who complete all six classes are declared Certified Urban Gardeners and awarded a certificate, which is presented during a graduation ceremony held in mid May each year (this year it will be May 16th). Last year’s graduation drew a large crowd of proud family members and neighbors, Dean says.
Photo 2: Classes cover many important topics including soil management and composting. Terry Straub
About 25 master gardeners are currently involved with the program (more are definitely needed) and they work with people on everything from planning how big a garden will need to be to feed their family to actually sketching out a design plan on graph paper. Because gardeners come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, the master gardeners who volunteer with the program spend time working with people to ensure they are able to grow things that suit their needs. Master gardeners also maintain their own demonstration plot, which helps them in explaining a lot of the ins and outs of vegetable growing. The plot is staffed every Saturday in June, so interested gardeners can stop by and ask questions.
Photo 3: Gardening is a great family activity. Terry Straub
Within Sabathani’s established community garden, which includes fifteen 40 ft. x 40 ft. plots, the Urban Gardener program has two 40 ft. x 40 ft. squares, which are divided into 10 ft. x 10 ft. or 10 ft. x 20 ft. plots. “We try to get people to choose the smaller size their first year because we want them to succeed,” Dean explains, adding that it’s often hard for participants to carve out the amount of time it takes to maintain a plot all summer. Twelve people worked plots in the community garden last year while other gardeners in the program chose to use their skills in their own backyards, or in other community gardens. One older woman, who took the Urban Gardener classes and enjoys taking care of container plants, brought her five adult children along last year because she wanted them to learn how to garden, too. This year, Dean expects to have about 25 people tending plots in the garden. Terry Straub, program coordinator for the Hennepin County master gardener program, hopes Sabathani gardeners may also consider becoming master gardeners in the future.
Photo 4: There is a strong sense of community among members of the Sabathani Community Center Urban Gardener Program. Terry Straub
While some people do plant a few of their own flowers, the program supplies everyone with vegetables at no cost. The bulk of plants come from donated seeds. But master gardener Joan Onffroy has also helped out by starting over 200 seedlings for participants for the past two years. To encourage a sense of community, everyone is asked to help each other throughout the season. During the program’s fall harvest festival, all of the plots are cleaned up and everyone sits down to a big potluck meal, which includes plenty of dishes made with produce participants have grown. “People are so proud of what they accomplish,” says Dean. “And right now, with everyone being so interested in locally grown food, this really seems like the right program at the right time.”