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

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