Grassroots efforts inspire a generation to get gardening


It was May 14, and the weather called for partly sunny skies and mild temps - perfect gardening conditions for the volunteers who help manage the community garden at First Congregational UCC of Oconomowoc. Spring was reticent this year, and group members were excited to finally have the chance to get their hands in the dirt.

But then a mercurial Mother Nature reminded us that in Wisconsin anything can happen - and it did. Brooding black clouds obliterated the partly sunny forecast, ushering in wind, sleeting rain, hail and for her final act: snow.

No matter. A little snow in mid-May could never stop the crew of hardy gardeners. As the old saying goes, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing." Armed with trowels, shovels, mulch and compost, they dug in with glee.

Kate Genett of Oconomowoc will plant two plots in the UCC Community Garden this season. "It feels wonderful to be out here digging in the earth. We don't have the opportunity to grow vegetables where we live, so it means a lot that we actually have a place to have a garden," she says smiling.

Community gardens

Through its mission to provide the area with a healthy community, economy and environment through the implementation of sustainable practices, Greener Oconomowoc sought opportunities to plant community gardens throughout Oconomowoc.

Seven years ago the group approached First Congregational UCC, 815 S. Concord Road, with the idea of starting a garden that would eventually be managed by the church. It has been thriving ever since.

Church members Tom and Shirley Depies, along with other gardeners, work together to keep the large, fenced garden going. The garden offers more than 30 10x10-foot plots at $25 each for the season for members of the community to cultivate, using only organic practices.

"The space gives people a chance to garden that might not otherwise have an opportunity due to shady yards or lack of space. It's also for people who have a garden at home, but would like to grow more," explains Tom. "I have a garden at home, but I like to grow potatoes, and they need a lot of space, so I can grow more food here. It's just fun," he adds chuckling.

Lisa Baudoin has been involved with the UCC Community Garden since the first seeds were planted seven years ago.

"It's been wonderful. It's nice to have the gathering time and a place to come to garden together. Being a part of this group and getting to know these people is so important to me. The experience expands your neighborhood. I come here to watch the sunset because I can't see it from my house. I bring my kids; it has become a destination beyond my own backyard," she adds.

Greener Oconomowoc (GO) helped to start two other community gardens on the City of Oconomowoc Utility Department's grounds at 801 and 815 S. Worthington St. Both gardens also offer 10x10-foot plots to rent for $25 each. The gardens are sponsored by GO, Oconomowoc Utilities and the Department of Parks, Recreation & Forestry.

Audrey Lasse has been involved with the community gardens since they were planted.

"It's important to have this opportunity on public lands for our community. Some people like to play sports and to spend time in our beautiful parks. It's great to also have a space for people to garden. It's a chance to get fresh air and exercise and to grow healthy food. There's camaraderie between the gardeners, and people feel really good about that," she says. "I am one of those people who have a shady yard, so I love the community gardens!"

Victory gardens

The concept of planting community gardens in urban and public areas is not a new one. The Victory Garden initiative was cultivated during World War I, and II as a way to offset declining agricultural labor and food production. Vegetable, fruit and herb gardens were planted in backyards, as well as vacant lots, public parks and open green spaces throughout communities, becoming a necessary and morale-boosting part of daily life and war effort on the home front.

According to Stuart Kallen's book "The War at Home," during World War II "around one third of the vegetables produced by the United States came from victory gardens." By 1943, there were more victory gardens in urban areas than in the rural countryside.

Three quarters of a century later the idea of community gardening seems to have sprouted new interest. As green initiatives have taken root, such as adopting environmentally sustainable and organic practices, buying and eating locally grown food and seeking an active connection to the cycle of life and where our food comes from, more and more green spaces are growing food and a sense of community.

This spring, the YMCA at Pabst Farms in Oconomowoc initiated a new garden through its member-led community service program Togetherhood, which encourages members to participate in service projects that benefit the community.

"This is our first yea,r and our hope is that we will be able to donate the fresh produce that is grown in our community gardens to the local food pantry," explains Bruce Osborn,director of spiritual development at the YMCA at Pabst Farms.

Food for thought

Three years ago, inspired by custodian Niki Becher, Silver Lake Intermediate School in Oconomowoc started a green initiative, dedicating a portion of its green space behind the school for several raised garden beds, which would be a growing opportunity for the new ecology club, the Mud SLIngers.

Today, the outreach program has grown to include 17 garden beds, two new flower and vegetable gardens on the front grounds of the school, as well as a new rain garden.

"I like planting flowers and veggies. It's really fun, and it's a good bonding experience. It's also really good for the environment," says Daisy Quinones, 14.

"Well, I'm the garden master because I like pulling weeds," laughs Jared Strom, 14. "It's fun because we're outside, and it's nice. More kids should do this."

The gardening endeavor reconnects students with the environment and offers the opportunity to discover more about where their food comes from. Students take care of the gardens throughout the summer and harvesting in the fall.

"Lots of great things are happening, and the student impact is incredible. When you have kids asking if they can weed the garden or dig through the worm compost, that's a good day," says eighth grade teacher Tina Kurtz.

Thanks to grants from the Thomas X. Herro Foundation and Oconomowoc Area Foundation, Nature Hill Intermediate School in Oconomowoc also started a new ecology club with three large garden beds. The student-led group began composting last fall, researched and planned what to plant and started vegetables by seed in early spring, which were then transplanted into the gardens in May.

The students meet after school and will take turns weeding and watering throughout the summer and eventually harvest the vegetables in the fall.

"We wanted to offer an outdoor classroom using our beautiful grounds. We plan to offer our fresh produce for tastings in the school cafeteria, and hopefully we will also have enough to donate to the food pantry," says ecology club adviser and sixth-grade teacher Evan Gosa. "The kids are taking ownership of our school grounds, and they're learning that there are healthy ways to have fun and to feed your family."


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