Bountiful harvest grown in community gardens
A not-so-new but budding movement with Upper Arlington roots is growing harvests of produce for central Ohioans in need.
The American Community Gardens Association, which relocated its national headquarters in 2006 from New York City to 1777 E. Broad St. in Columbus, identifies 136 community gardens in the Columbus area.
Gardens at Barrington and Tremont elementary schools in Upper Arlington serve to teach students about gardening and sustainability and provide produce for area food pantries.
Two others -- Seeds of Hope Community Garden at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 2070 Ridgecliff Road, and Upper Arlington Lutheran Church's garden at its Mill Run campus in Hilliard -- provide thousands of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to people who might otherwise go hungry.
"We have about 20 volunteers and about 10 are what I'd call 'hardcore' volunteers who spend quite a bit of time with our garden," said Bob Tannehill, an Upper Arlington resident and manager of the Seeds of Hope Community Garden.
"We're generating a little over a half-ton a year, or a little over 1,000 pounds a year of produce.
"This year, we were fortunate enough to add a computerized irrigation system to water all 17 beds and it frees up our volunteers ... and saves water."
Planning for the Seeds of Hope garden began in 2010 after Covenant Presbyterian member Karen Hjelm floated the idea to grow food to donate to food pantries.
She also identified an unused volleyball court on the church's property as a garden locale, and she recruited Tannehill to lead the project because he'd completed the Ohio State University Extension Office's master gardening program.
An approximately $4,000 startup grant from Scotts Miracle-Gro, funding from Covenant Presbyterian and the Upper Arlington Rotary Club and discounts on materials from area businesses such as Lowe's helped establish the garden.
Tannehill said the Franklin Park Conservatory's Growing to Green Program also provided essential startup and maintenance know-how, which has allowed the garden to produce more without significant expansion.
It now assists the SOS Food Pantry at Covenant Presbyterian Church, the Heart to Heart Food Pantry at First Community Village and Community Kitchen Inc., which operates two soup kitchens in Columbus.
"We have probably 13 or 14 different crops," Tannehill said. "We didn't have to buy the land, but we put in an irrigation system, a nice fence and raised the beds, and that can cost $5,000 to $10,000.
"Once you get the basic garden up and going, the annual expenses are rather modest. I'd say they're about $500."
While the nourishment the produce provides is free, recipients say it's extremely valuable.
"The community gardens are very, very important to us," said Marilyn Obertinger, Community Kitchen director of operations. "We're a from-scratch soup kitchen and we don't buy that many canned items.
"Whatever comes in helps. The community gardens give us the option of handing out fresh fruits and vegetables that (clients) can take home."
Upper Arlington Lutheran Church's garden at Mill Run is in its sixth year of operation. At approximately 6,000 square feet, it is an even larger project.
Church member and Upper Arlington resident Todd Marti, the recipient of Growing to Green's 2012 Gardener of the Year award for beautification and/or food production, is proud of how his church's garden has grown.
"We want people to have as much of Jesus' love as possible, so we provide as much food as possible," Marti said. "Last year was our best year ever, and we did 17,383 pounds of produce.
"Over the life of the garden, we've done around 41,000 pounds. As of July 31, we've done around 4,300 pounds this year."
Upper Arlington Lutheran Church's produce goes to many food pantries and organizations, including the Victory Mission, Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio and the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.
It also is distributed during summer months to Hilliard City Schools students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, and to Doma, an organization that seeks to combat human trafficking by providing catering and other jobs to women throughout central Ohio.
"This has even taken on a new dimension," Marti said. "Now we provide English-language skills to people who come to work in the fields.
"We have people who've emigrated from places like Iraq and India. It takes a while to learn English and working in the garden gives them a chance to use their English skills and get to know other people in the community."
Upper Arlington Lutheran Church's garden at Mill Run was one of 12 Columbus-area community gardens highlighted by Growing to Green's Hub Gardens Tour Aug. 3.
According to Bill Dawson, Growing to Green program coordinator, the Franklin Park Conservatory uses the tour to showcase gardens which serve as gardening-education centers for their communities and as inspirational resources for anyone interested in community gardening.
He said the Columbus area has a robust and unique network of community gardens. Through various Growing to Green initiatives, garden groups often help create new gardens in nearby communities.
"It's been said we have the most gardens per capita," Dawson said. "We'll probably have someone start another one tomorrow. There's a little bit of ebb and flow, but we haven't had a lot of attrition.
"One thing the gardens provide is food access, which is critical. That access, I don't care if it's Upper Arlington, Dublin or the near East Side (of Columbus), there is a need for food."