Communication is the Key to Gardening by Committee at the Kalamazoo Giving Garden

I was asked to offer more detail regarding communication and administration of our Giving Garden as sort of an epilog to the Kalamazoo Giving Garden blog posts I submitted earlier this spring.

When I was working for a living, we had a saying that “If something goes wrong, it’s usually because somebody didn’t tell someone about something.” How true I have found that to be in all projects.

Communication is key in managing our large community garden.

Garden Logs and Email Keep the Giving Garden Volunteers Up-to-Date

The old 'Mailbox' keeps people up-to-date on gardening activities
Our old mail box “communication system” for the Kalamazoo Giving Garden

Following each work shift, one of the two responsible coordinators prepares a “Garden Log” and emails it to all coordinators.

(Prior to email becoming “universal” we used a regular mailbox on site to leave notes for the next shift.  As you see (photo to the left),  it’s still there for sentimental reasons.)

The garden log is simply a report, in a standard format, that documents what happened during a particular work shift and shows what needs to be done during the next or future shifts. It lists the volunteers who were there, what was accomplished and provides a “To do” list for the next shift and if it rained, how much. There is also a “Notes” section for miscellaneous information.

I have posted a copy of one of our logs from last year below.  The Garden Logs not only provide a reference source for what was done and when, but combined, become a historical journal for the garden.

Sample Garden Log from the Giving Garden

Garden Log for July 25, 2011

Dale G
Ron H
Vai Kai
Jan Z
Jan P
Barb C
Bob P


Weeded Cukes, Okra and Egg Plants (about 100 lbs of mostly nut sedge)
Planted 5 rows of snap beans
Beans 14.6 lbs
Bell Peppers 25 lbs
Zukes 11.6 lbs
Summer Sq. 8.2 lbs
Okra 5.8 lbs
Roasting Peppers 4.8 lbs
Cukes 18.6
Banana Peppers 1lb
Total 89.6 (The Food Bank had a truck in town and said they would pick up even if we were under the 100 lbs)

Rototill peppers
Mulch squash (where the trailer of mulch is parked)
Weed where needed ( melons, pickles, Tomatoes where large weeds have grown,)
Mow grass.

Empty and wash the buckets with weeds in them left by the previous shift.

Empty rock buckets

If you have boxes and/buckets of various sizes, please ask before bringing them. The shed is filling with stuff we may not be able to use.

Please do not leave partially filled buckets of weeds. They rot quickly and stink. All buckets should be emptied and rinsed after each shift. SEE SOPs!!

There are black plastic bags in the shed that should be used for “bad Weeds” ( Nut Sedge and Purslane) to solarize them. We are putting them in back behind the “Good” compost pile. The “Bad” pile is the closest one near the rock pile. There has been some confusion and weeds have been mixed. I know we should mark them, we did once, but the signs disappeared.

The cookies and sweet bread at break were wonderful. Thanks to Jan P and Diana.

White and Bulletin Boards Help Communicate Immediate and Key Garden Information

We also have a white board in our shed where we leave notes regarding immediate issues so the next shift won’t forget or miss them. We also have a bulletin board where we post our planting guides, and contact information for key personnel and miscellaneous “stuff”.

Checking whiteboard for garden instruction
Master Gardener checking whiteboard for important notes
White boards encourage Giving Garden discussions among Kalamazoo Master Gardeners (from left to right) Bob Poel and Pete Bourgeois .

Garden Standard Operating Procedures Help Ensure ‘Best Practice’

Another important piece of communication is our Garden Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs.  We feel that SOPs are vital to standardize the way things are done and to ensure continued “best practice”.

It also serves as training tool for new coordinators. The SOP contains the following sections:

I. Introduction

II. Scope

III. Planting Guide The planting guide is a table that shows distances between rows and plants. This is important because it accommodates the use of our cultivating equipment without destroying the plants. It is posted in the shed on our bulletin board. This section also has a mulching priority list showing the order in which our plants get mulched.

Giving Garden sprinklers keep potatoes well watered
Giving Garden sprinklers keep the potato patch well watered

IV. Coordinator Responsibilities. This section covers things like working with volunteers, safety issues, cleaning equipment before storing, preparation of the log, lock up procedures before leaving and so on.

V. Growing. This section covers, thinning plants, pruning, weeding, rock collection and placement (we have many 5 gallon buckets placed around the garden for rocks so they don’t get thrown into grassy areas and hit by mowers). This section also addresses control of plant disease and insects. It lists acceptable pesticides if use of pesticides becomes necessary and how to use and store them. It also includes control of animals such as deer, woodchucks and ground squirrels.

VI. Harvesting. This section describes when and how our various vegetables should be harvested. It includes, picking (for example, stems must be removed from tomatoes so they do not bruise other tomatoes in the container when picking and during shipping) cleaning the vegetables, sorting and packing for pickup. Contact information for the Food Bank and local agencies using our produce is also included.

VII. End of Season Activities. This section covers garden clean-up, take down and storage of tomato cages,  preparation of motorized equipment for winter storage, storage of hoses, drip lines, picnic and wash tables, and wheel barrows. The last activity is to tell the company that provides our water, that they can shut it off and blow out the lines.

Year Long Coordination Keeps Things Rolling

About a month after we close the garden for the year, we have a coordinator meeting to review the growing season. We look at what we did and how – what worked and what did not, what we grew too much of or too little, and did what we grew match our volunteer base?

Based on that review, our mid winter meeting determines what and how much will be planted the next growing season. The planting guide is developed, and the seeds ordered and the SOP “tweaked” if necessary. Our final early spring meeting determines work shifts and responsibilities and what equipment needs repair and or replacement and what additional tools will need to be purchased or replaced.

It is this kind or communication and administration that has facilitated running the Kalamzaoo Giving Garden smoothly for more than 15 years and allows us to  “lead by committee.”

– JC Schneider
Kalamazoo Michigan Extension Master Gardener





The Giving Garden, Part 3: Kalamazoo Master Gardeners Use Garden for Outreach and Education

In two prior blog posts, I’d mentioned how the Giving Garden came into being and how the project has become sustainable for over 15 years. The vision, passion, planting, maintenance, and partnerships developed over the years yield produce to be harvested, but the Giving Garden becomes even more ‘fruitful’ in providing new opportunities for hands on learning opportunities. These learning opportunities enable volunteers to transfer their passion and skills of gardening to ‘gardeners in training’.

Both the Pumpkin Patch Event and hands on classes help extend our passion for gardening as Kalamazoo Master Gardeners and are in the spirit of the Giving Garden.

The Pumpkin Pick Event

Each October, we hold a highly anticipated event called the “Pumpkin Pick”. On a Saturday morning, employees of the companies on whose land we garden, and their families, are invited to come and pick pumpkins. Watching these children run around looking for that perfect specimen is indeed a joy. I think our garden crew gets as much enjoyment from this event as do the children

Pumpkin Pick Activity at the Giving Garden
Pumpkin Pick Activity at the Giving Garden (Photo: JC Schneider, Kalamazoo (MI) Master Gardener)

Giving Garden Pumpkin Pick
The Giving Garden Production Garden hosts the annual Pumpkin Pick event (Photo: JC Schneider, Kalamazoo (MI) Master Gardener)

Hands-on Seminars and Courses

In addition to being a production garden, this garden also serves as a teaching garden. A number of people volunteer just to learn gardening by working with our Master Gardener staff.

“Vegetable Gardening 202” seminars are given at the garden on a variety of topics. This past year we built 4 raised beds that we use as demonstration gardens for those interested in constructing and growing in raised beds. We also help other local community gardens by providing consultation and seminars.

Three of our coordinators developed and teach a 12 hour, 6 week, vegetable gardening course, “Vegetable Gardening 101 Plus”, each year prior to the growing season. This course has been so well received that we have had to expand it to two sessions each spring!

Giving Garden Classes on Rasied Beds
Giving Garden Classes on Raised Beds (Photo: JC Schneider, Kalamazoo (MI) Master Gardener)

Giving Garden Class on Raised Beds
Giving Garden Class on Raised Beds (Photo: JC Schneider, Kalamazoo (MI) Master Gardener)

Community and Volunteers Make the Giving Garden Possible

Now, this may seem redundant, but I’ll repeat here what I said in the first blog post about making this project and the learning opportunities I mentioned above possible:

Without the help we get from the community and all our volunteers, the Giving Garden 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

The Giving Garden, Part 2: Planning, Managing, and Sustaining the Giving Garden of Over 15 Years

As I mentioned in my last blog on the history of the Giving Garden, many volunteers and partners work to plan, prepare, manage and sustain the Giving Garden of over 15 years.

Work begins each spring as early as weather allows and ends when harvest has been completed. The garden is prepared for winter, usually early November. Our committee of Master Gardener Coordinators meets three times during the winter to plan for the next season. Past season activities, planting and harvest are reviewed and adjustments are made where necessary.

Coming up with practical planting plans

One of the hardest things we have to do is to control our enthusiasm so we don’t plant more than we are able to manage! Here are the nuts and bolts of how we put together our planting plan:

  • We currently plant 1.8 acres of the approximately 5 acre area.
  • We also have sixteen 25′ x 30′ plots for private or personal gardens that are offered to community residents. Employees of the companies whose land we use have priority.
  • We use a computer generated planting guide, developed by one of our coordinators, that dictates where everything is to be planted and how much (see fig 1).
  • Taking plant families into consideration, the planting guide insures proper crop rotation.  Using our plan, crops cycle every three years. Some areas are allowed to go fallow and cover crops are planted to help recondition the soil and add nutrients. The planting guide also allows us to better estimate the number of seeds and bedding plants that we will have to order. All seeds and plants that we need are donated by local merchants.

Below is Figure 1, a picture of the computer generated planting plan. A larger version can be downloaded as a PDF here> 2011 Humphrey – Kendall Master Gardener_GivingGarden_Kalamazoo.


Planting Plan for the Humphrey-Kendall Vegetable Garden
Planting Plan for the Humphrey-Kendall Vegetable Garden

How the work gets done

Planting the Giving Garden
Planting the Giving Garden (Photo: JC Schneider)

As soon as the ground can be worked, a local farmer plows and disks the garden for us and spreads the fertilizer. After work begins, we have five three-hour work sessions scheduled each week. We get an average of 10 volunteers per shift, some work as many as three shifts, others lesser amounts. Two coordinators are assigned to each shift to assign duties, instruct where necessary and oversee volunteer activities. All volunteers sign in so we can monitor the number of volunteers and how much time they give to the project. The work includes cultivating, planting, mulching, weeding, and harvesting vegetables, as well as maintaining the garden equipment and keeping the area mowed and well groomed.

Following each shift, one of the coordinators prepares a “Garden Log” that is emailed to all coordinators. The log documents the volunteers present at that shift, what was accomplished, and what needs to be done by the next shift. A notes section is used for general information. The log allows the coordinators for the following shift to prepare ahead of time for what needs to be done and servers as “diary” that documents activity for the year which helps us plan for the next season. The logs also serve as historical documentation for the project.

Controlling the Weeds – Mulch

We mulch our entire garden to help control weeds. We have a win-win agreement with the city to provide our mulch. They deliver around 250 cubic yards of compressed leaves each fall. We get the leaves for mulch, and the city saves time and gasoline by not having to drive to their landfill which is much further away than our garden.

Delivery leaves for mulch
Delivering leaves for mulch. Mulch is used to control the weeds (Photo: JC Schneider)

On site Storage

We have two sheds on site to store equipment. One shed belonged to Humphrey Products. In 2010 we constructed a 10’x16’ wood-framed shed for additional storage. Garden equipment includes a small 25-year-old tractor, walk-behind rototillers, and hand tools that have been donated over the years. This equipment has allowed us to enlarge the area cultivated, increase productivity, and improve the quality of the harvest. Mechanical equipment has contributed to increased output and decreased sweat equity, always welcome enhancements.

Giving Garden Shed
Giving Garden Shed (Photo: JC Schneider)

Harvest at the Giving Garden

When harvest begins, vegetables are picked, washed and or wiped, placed in boxes and weighed. The Food Bank picks up the harvest in refrigerated trucks for delivery to their warehouse. The frequency of pickups is coordinated with the Food Bank based on the amount of vegetables ready for harvest.

On Saturday, the harvest (up to 100 lbs) is picked up by the Ministries for Community, for local use. Our harvest has ranged from 15 to over 22 thousand pounds since 2006. Variation is caused mostly by weather conditions and pests. 2010 was our best year, producing 22,502 lbs. That included 9,879 lbs of tomatoes, 2,500 lbs of cucumbers and 1,700 lbs of winter squash. This past year our total was 17,312.

Cleaning and Boxing Vegetables
Cleaning and Boxing Vegetables (Photo: JC Schneider)

Following is a list of the vegetables we grow at the Giving Garden:

  • Snap Beans (Green & Yellow)
  • Pole Beans
  • Pinto Beans
  • Egg Plant
  • Cucumber (Slicers & Pickle varieties)
  • Peppers (Sweet and Hot)
  • Tomatoes (Slicers & Roma’s)
  • Pumpkins (Pie and Jack-O-Lantern)
  • Squash (Summer & Winter varieties)
  • Cabbage
  • Collard Greens
  • Kale
  • Okra
  • Turnips
  • Potatoes (Red & White Skin)
  • Tomatillos
  • Muskmelon
  • Watermelon

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