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Harvard Community Gardens

Local Master Gardeners, farmers and volunteers donate Harvard Community Gardens’ crops to the Harvard Food Pantry.

As hunger continues to threaten some area residents, community members are stepping up to ensure these folks have access to fresh food. For nine years, Master Gardeners, farmers and volunteers have teamed up to operate Harvard Community Gardens, which supplies locally grown produce to the Harvard Food Pantry weekly during the growing season.

The idea to start the garden began in 1999 when Kasey Murphy, former family nutrition program coordinator at the University of Illinois Extension, found out about a community garden project in Kenosha, Wis. The lead came from her former boss Don Schellhaass, a Master Gardener former county director. “I took the idea to fellow gardeners who I knew would be interested,” Murphy said, including David Trumbel, Werner Heidtke, Brenda Dahlfors, Joyce Palmer and Margie Bjorkman. “It took a while to find land and coordinate volunteers,” she added.

The city of Harvard donated about 1 acre of land near the Harvard Diggins Library (900 E. McKinley St.), and in 2001, the group’s first harvest yielded 5,000 pounds.

Many-Faceted Mission

Though Murphy is still involved with the garden, the torch of coordinator has been passed to Steven DeBerg, Master Gardener and Marengo resident. He says the garden’s purpose is many-fold.

“The garden gives Master Gardeners the chance to work together and with volunteers; it’s like a club of friends,” DeBerg said. “We enjoy getting our hands dirty.”

It also gives Master Gardeners-in-training hands-on experience and earns them volunteer hours toward their 60-hour requirement. “There is a whole new crop of Master Gardener interns who are eager to earn their hours,” he said.

Of course, the group is primarily driven by the opportunity to share the fruits of its labor. “This is a chance to grow and distribute food to people who need our help,” he added.

In 2009, the Harvard Food Pantry received 6,000 pounds of produce from the Harvard Community Gardens, as well as local farmers, according to pantry Director Pat Boltz.

The garden serves as a focal point in the community, as well. “People see us working and stop by to watch – there is a lot of interest in what we’re doing,” DeBerg said. “We’re creating a very aesthetically pleasing addition to the community.”

How it Works

The garden’s coordinators meet year-round to plan for the growing season.

The group begins tilling each spring in late April. In addition to seed provided by the University of Illinois Extension, Rich Brook of Brook Farm (9306 Lawrence Rd. in Harvard) donates seed and lent his greenhouse to get the seeds growing.

The garden uses raised beds covered in plastic with a drip irrigation system beneath them. “This saves a lot of labor,” DeBerg said.

The plastic covering reduces weed growth, and maintains adequate and even moisture while warming the soil.

Mondays at 9 a.m. during the growing season, volunteers gather to clean out weeds, plant seeds, prepare the beds and manage the irrigation system. Though the turnout is generally around 10 to 12 volunteers, the garden has attracted up to 20 people, he said.

Annually, the 11,000-square-foot farm yields 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of produce.

Crops include beets, broccoli, a variety of peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, onions, carrots, herbs, cucumbers, squash, green beans, zucchini, asparagus and tomatillos.

The group grows these crops with minimal to no herbicides or pesticides. “That’s one of the benefits of using the plastic – we don’t have to kill weeds [using harsh chemicals],” DeBerg said. “We can be as organic as possible. We’re not 100 percent organic, but we’re very close.”

The garden’s success is due in no small part to the volunteers and donations offered by local residents, farmers and gardeners.

“We have received a lot of seed donations from the U of I and equipment donations from local farmers and implement dealers,” DeBerg said. “A local farmer donates straw. There are a lot of people who chip in.”

Pantry Partner

The Harvard Food Pantry works in concert with the community farm to provide the harvest to those in need. It pays for the farm’s water bill and was able to purchase a commercial fridge to extend the shelf life of the perishable produce.

Demand for food at the Harvard Food Pantry has never been greater, according to Boltz. The pantry has served a lot of recently laid-off workers. It’s alarming, she says, because there are so many new faces coming through the pantry’s doors. “It’s carpenters and bricklayers,” Boltz said. “People are out of jobs, but they still have to eat [and feed their] kids.

“[We are seeing] families that have never had these problems,” she added. They are the same people, she said, who will undoubtedly return the favor when they are back on their feet.

Community garden programs are catching on county-wide. According to Brenda Dahlfors, McHenry County Master Gardener coordinator at the University of Illinois Extension, Woodstock, McHenry, Nunda Township and others raise produce for their pantries, too. “The communities are responding to the need,” she said, noting that they look to the master gardener program for guidance.

Gardening – A Family Affair

Gardening is great therapy – “dirt therapy” if you will. It’s a wonderful way to spend time with your family and teach your children the importance of homegrown produce – and hopefully inspire a lifetime of gardening. Gardening gives children a sense of pride and teaches patience and many other valuable lessons. It’s also a wonderful pastime to get children out of the house and away from the computer and video games. –Michelle Anderson, Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center

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