Partners help us diversify crops!

Montana Rural Health Initiative’s Grant helps Helena Community Gardens diversify Helena Food Share donations.

In 2017, Helena Community Gardens (HCG) applied for a mini-grant from Montana Rural Health Initiative, intending to use the grant funds to purchase a hoop house for season extension at one of the Community Gardens. The Waukesha Community Garden has 40 plots for rent, with several plots sown for produce that is donated to Helena Food Share.

photo of row cover and squash
Daphne points out the summer squash under the Row Cover

HCG was awarded the grant and began excitedly planning for the hoop house. However, unexpected increases in costs as well as limited water supply during early spring and late fall (due to the garden’s location on City Park property with seasonal watering) prevented moving forward with the hoop house. RHI generously allowed a revision to the grant details, and Garden Managers at Waukesha used the $500 RHI mini-grant funds to purchase and construct row covers for two garden plots (45 ft x 35 ft each).

The row covers should provide 2-4 additional weeks of growing in spring and fall, allowing HCG to harvest spring crops earlier (lettuces and spinaches), and provide more time for frost-sensitive crops (cucurbits, tomatoes, peppers) to ripen. These additional weeks would increase the amount of produce grown for Helena Food Share, as well as increase the number of months during which fresh food could be provided to Food Share. Garden Managers have used the grant opportunity to showcase the construction and upkeep of the row-covers to other gardeners at Waukesha, inviting them to learn how to use row covers for season extension in their own plots.

Montana’s cool and wet spring of 2018 pushed back the planting season about 2.5 weeks (according to MSU Extension Agents), and the garden’s soil was not workable until mid-May. I visited the Waukesha garden in early June, after the row cover had been in place for a few weeks.

Daphne Digrindakis and Jannis LeBlanc are volunteer Garden Managers at Waukesha, and the individuals who came up with the project idea. Daphne has been managing Waukesha since 2015, and I met her onsite for a visit and update.

Rolling back a bit of row cover on one end, she showed me zucchini plants, with the squash nearly ready to be harvested. These plants clearly benefited from the micro-climate under the row cover, and upon rolling back the cloth a little more, there were many other winter squash plants flourishing. Daphne chose to plant more winter squash due to their storage capabilities, and the fact that the Food Share pantry lacks this type of produce in the winter months. For 2018 they had already harvested and donated radishes to Food Share, and would soon be picking and delivering the summer squash.

photo of wall of water over tomatoes
Wall of Waters protect the tender crops

Walking through the plots, Daphne noticed flea beetles on the tomatoes and immediately rummaged in a garden cart for her diatomaceous earth. She used an adorable old flour sifter to sprinkle it on, saying that the fine powder causes discomfort to the beetle’s exoskeleton and would repel them. HCG uses only organic gardening practices, which can make weed and pest control challenging, but all the gardeners are willing to be creative and maintain the practices. HCG hosts organic pest and weed control workshops each year to encourage not just participants at HCG, but gardeners in the Helena community to adopt, or at least try, chemical-free methods.

In both 2016 and 2017, Waukesha garden donated about 1,000 lbs of produce, and this year they are on track to donate 50% more than that amount. Daphne reminded me that sometimes the produce they are donating doesn’t weigh a lot, but the items they bring are worth their weight in gold. Organic lettuce, peppers, and beans can be a rarity in the diet of those who need a little assistance with their grocery bills, and our Food Share friends tell us HCG’s organic produce does not last long on their pantry shelves. Gardeners throughout all 8 community gardens are encouraged to participate in produce donation, and most gardens have dedicated donation plots that are planted and harvested for Food Share. HCG also encourages “Growing a Row” for Food Share throughout the community, and are working on ideas as to how better to gather and glean produce to be donated.

photo of gardenAs we were poking around the rest of the garden, she pointed towards a large plot that had been overgrown with weeds, and it appeared like someone had started to weed and till it. A new gardener? I asked. And Daphne said they had a trunk full of pepper and tomato plants that had been donated, and she and Jannis (who had just arrived with a work force of two young children) needed to get busy putting them in the ground. She is surely aware that each tomato or zucchini she harvests provides healthy nutrients, and hopefully she knows how much love, kindness, and generosity they also contain because of her and Jannis’ dedication.

HCG would not have been able to complete this project without the help of the Montana RHI grant, and we are so thankful to have been chosen for this opportunity.

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