Friday, April 10, 2015

Spirit of Invention: The Giving Garden at Mt. Nittany UMC

By Joanna Jones

The Giving Garden at Mt. Nittany UMC started in 2014. Bob Jones was inspired by a TED Talk about food insufficiency programs in Los Angeles; I had heard Bishop Middleton speak about creating programs based on unique qualities each congregation has. My thought was that Mt. Nittany UMC had a huge, underused yard. I also work for the school district and have seen how many families are struggling to make ends meet. My husband, in particular, was really ready to do something big. (He is not one to aim low!)

So we looked at our empty nest and thought the time had come to stop talking. We met with Pastor Ed Preston all prepared to pitch the idea and argue the point. From the first words out of our mouths, he basically just said, “Absolutely! Let’s do that.” We worried that the trustees might not like the idea, but they were wholeheartedly behind it. The trustees worried that the township had zoning that would prohibit it, but the township supported it wholeheartedly. We worried that we couldn’t afford materials on our small $1,200 budget, but local suppliers donated topsoil, landscapers donated delivery of compost, and a local hardware store gave us a discount on hardscape materials.

That has been the lesson of this garden — people worry, but God makes things happen and moves mountains. Whenever we’ve needed help someone has stepped forward to provide it. The mission of the garden is “to provide produce without condition, continue our faith journeys through His example of service, and create the opportunity for fellowship.”

We have about seven gardeners, with more coming on-board this year. Some have gardening experience, many did not have any gardening experience at all. Some people worked most Saturdays, some of our best helpers were people who came just long enough to weed twice a week during the day or check the fence. The garden was 600 square feet but is being enlarged to about 1000 square feet this year. The raised beds are made of landscape timbers and our seeds/plants are provided by generous donors.

Last year we grew a little of everything: turnips, broccoli, cabbage, beets, chard, celery, lettuces, herbs, peppers, squash, beans, cucumbers, bok choy, cauliflower, carrots, and tomatoes. We began in May and closed the garden up in early November. A total of 971 pounds of produce were given away, plus about 80 pounds of corn and 60 pounds of jack-o-lantern pumpkins.

One partner client is The Mommy Shoppe of Houserville UMC, which is a clothes pantry for families with young children. We also make weekly deliveries to The Women’s Resource Center shelter in downtown State College, where families in crisis have a safe and secure home while situations stabilize. We delivered to the senior citizens at Rolling Ridge apartments near our church. We delivered to shut-ins, we put food out for congregants, and we delivered our ridiculous abundance of swiss chard to the State College Food Bank. We also encourage the church’s neighbors to pick what they can use, but those amounts weren’t weighed. There are no forms, no requirements, no conditions for receiving food. Sometimes people out for a walk carry home a cucumber or a cabbage if we can talk them into it.

This year we’ll be adding asparagus and raspberry beds to the vegetable beds. We are hoping that churches with an interest will come and garden with us for the season before starting their own garden. Long-term, we want to provide “a garden in a box” for any congregation that wants to provide produce without condition — we’ll provide mentoring, seeds, and materials to get started.

I can’t say enough wonderful things about it. Even with the dead plants, the tomato blight, the endless rain followed by scorching sun ... even with too much chard and not enough cabbage, God has been so good. You stand in our garden, knowing all that food is going to land on someone’s table and make their life a little easier, and understand that He is smiling down at our work and blessing it. Our congregation has embraced the whole idea with enthusiasm, reaching out to take food to friends, sending shut-ins names our way, standing around talking recipes, getting to know our neighbors ....

We are very excited to spread the word about the Giving Garden, since one of our goals is to spread the concept to as many churches as are willing to create their own gardens.

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