The Giving Garden, Part 1: The History of Sustainable Volunteer-Led Garden Project

Editors note: This story about the Giving Garden, a Kalamazoo Master Gardener volunteer-led project, was submitted by JC Schneider a Kalamazoo County,  Michigan Extension Master Gardener. This is the first of several posts where JC shares the story of the Giving Garden and how Master Gardener volunteers and partnerships with local businesses and organizations have sustained the Giving Garden for over 15 years.  When I asked JC to share what was most interesting and unique to him about this project he replied:

One of the most interesting things about being involved with this project, is that this is the only project I have ever been a part of, run by a committee, that works, and it works well.

Thus this blog post will be followed by two other blogs posts with details of how the Giving Garden has sustained it’s efforts and provided rich learning opportunities over the years. Through these blog posts about the Giving Garden, I hope you’ll be able to take away some “nuggets of wisdom’ from what the Kalamazoo Master Gardener have shared through these posts, or perhaps share some of your own insights about sustainable garden projects via the comments section below.

– Karen Jeannette, eXtension Consumer Horticulture Content Coordinator

How The Giving Garden Began

Mike Blakely,
Mike Blakely, Kalamazoo County Master Gardener, planted the seed for this volunteer project. (Photo: JC Schneider)

From the late 70s through the early 90s, Mike Blakely, a local Master Gardener and retiree, was asked to judge personal gardens grown by employees of Humphrey Products, a local maker of small machine parts, on land the company owned. They awarded a prize each year to the employee judged to have the best garden.

In the mid nineties, the economy was good and interest in gardening waned. By the late nineties, gardening on the property ceased altogether.

Mike requested permission from the company to garden a portion of the land.  He proposed donating the vegetables harvested to Loaves and Fishes, a local organization that provides food for those in need via 26 local pantries and kitchens in the Kalamazoo area.  Humphrey Products generously agreed to provide the land and water for irrigation. Water lines had been installed by the company for use by employee gardeners. It was then that Mike “planted the seed” of this volunteer garden project.

Growing the Garden through people, plants, and partnerships

Mike gathered a few Master Gardener volunteers and in 1997, the project began. The garden has matured over time; the area cultivated has grown, as well as the amount and varieties of vegetables planted. In addition, efforts to teach young people to garden were added to the plan.

Our harvest has improved and the number of volunteers has increased significantly. Coordinated by Mike until 2008, when he thought it was time to “retire” at 84 years young, the garden is now overseen by a core group of nine volunteer Master Gardener “Coordinators” consisting primarily of retirees from a wide range of professions including scientists, a physics professor, a fireman, a schoolteacher, and others. Additionally, some 60 people, mostly Master Gardeners, volunteer various amounts of their time to the garden each year.

In 2006, our production exceeded Loaves and Fishes capacity so we made arrangements with the Food Bank of South Central Michigan to have them distribute our vegetables. The Food Bank serves an eight county area serving over 200 organizations that provide fresh, healthy, locally grown food.

Community and Volunteers Make the Giving Garden Possible

Spring Plow
Spring Plow (Photo: JC Schneider)

Without the help we get from the community and all our volunteers, this project would not be possible. In 2008, Humphrey Products sold much of the land we were gardening to Kendall Electric. When Kendall realized what we were doing on that property, they supported us 100% and along with Humphrey, have been wonderful partners. Humphrey supplies all the water for irrigation, Kendall donated money for a new top of the line rototiller to replace our two 35 year old models.

Donations as well as fundraisers, held by the Kalamazoo County Master Gardeners, help fund the garden. A local radio station included us in a fundraiser; the money donated was used to build our new shed. The Food Bank also helps with expenses. We cannot thank the community, local businesses, Michigan State University Extension and all the Master Gardeners enough for helping to make the seed that Mike Blakely planted 15 years ago grow into a project that benefits so many people, much like Jack and his beanstalk.

-Blog post article submitted by JC Schneider
Kalamazoo Michigan Extension Master Gardener