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Low-Maintenance Community Vegetable Garden

January 31, 2011

I'm the pastor of a church on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We have a food pantry serving low-income folks in our community, especially those struggling with poverty following Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

We also continue to host volunteers short-term mission teams from across the country in the ongoing relief, recovery, and rebuilding efforts. We have been doing a lot of clean-up and rebuilding over the last five years. For example, this March, just about 5 weeks from today, we will have about 400 high school and college students from Tennessee, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Alabama, Kansas, and Mississippi here for their spring break volunteering in a host of projects around our community. I'm considering focusing some of the attention on establishing a vegetable garden, here on the church property, that will then, in turn, serve our food pantry ministry with fresh produce.

I'm looking for ideas. Any suggestions on type of crops, varieties, plantings, best practices, etc would be welcome. Whatever we do, the long term sustainability of this project will depend on the low maintenance needs of the garden. While we will have plenty of help during the month of March to get things started, help will be sporadic, at best, throughout the growing season.

One idea I have involves what Native Americans called the "three sisters" - corn, beans, and squash. If I understand it correctly, the corn and beans complement each other with the corn stalks providing verticality for the climbing beans and the beans replace nitrogen into the soil for the corn. The squash then protects the ground and holds back the onslaught of weeds. I've never tried it before, but the idea sounds low maintenance to me. If I start germinating seeds in dixie cups this week, I would think the young plants would be ready for the ground by the time the spring break volunteer teams get here.

Any other ideas and discussion is welcome. Thank you so much.

Pastor Don

Lakeshore Baptist Church

Rebuild Lakeshore

Comments (11)

  • Dan _Staley (5b Sunset 2B AHS 7)

    More power to you. Your folks are not forgotten.

    o 'Low maintenance' is relative. Keep weeds down with thick mulch: hay, straw, leaves, grass clippings, etc.

    o You want to grow what your flock will eat and what they need to improve their diet (as long as they will eat it).

    o Having people somehow become invested in the project will ensure its (and their) success - no investment, no pride and no success. Volunteer labor is only a small part of the overall project. Having your folks choose their crops for their family is the first step. Having them clear ground and improve the soil is the next. Having them sweat is how you keep it going. Having someone come out and show them how to harvest, store, and prepare will ensure they come back. Make it easy for them to be there - shade, babysitter, lemonade. Figuring out how to get and keep the beneficiaries coming is much, much, much harder than figuring out how to keep the weeds down. There is a rich literature of neighborhood and societal investment stories, anecdotes, and case studies. They all show the same thing.

    o Reach out to your County Extension and see if you can get some Master Gardeners to come by and give their time and knowledge (not to pull weeds).

    Good luck to you and yours Pastor.


  • curt_grow

    Pastor Don; Check out Jon Hughes on this forum He is the Expert on food shelf gardening and one great guy. I would not three sister garden if the help is not experienced. At least read Buffalo Bird Woman's explanation of Mandan gardening. Google it. Its a free read.


  • Elbourne

    Dan, Thank you so much for the encouragement and good advice. Its one thing to get the out of town volunteers to get things started, but the key to success will be to get locals to take ownership of the garden for ongoing care. Thanks.

    Curt, Thank you. I will check out Buffalo Bird Woman's explanation of Mandan gardening.

  • iam3killerbs

    I think that the key to successful food pantry gardening would be people's familiarity with the food.

    Tomatoes, squash, peppers, green beans, cucumbers, ..., -- stuff people know how to use.

    Will you be able to have the produce picked regularly? Good mulching reduces weeding and watering needs dramatically, but if the crops are doing well most of the vegetables I mentioned need to be picked every other day.

  • alabamanicole

    Since you have labor now, if funds permit or you can get materials donated, I would build tall raised beds which are easy on the back and with ample room for a wheelchair in between the rows. An accessible garden will not only open it up to senior and disabled volunteers, but it will show that these folks CAN garden successfully. (And many of them may have great gardening know-how.)

    In addition to growing what people will happily eat, keep in mind that those with limited funds may appreciate high dollar crops more than just any food. Fresh tomatoes are expensive, but in-season summer squash is not. Small fruits like strawberries and perennial vegetables like chayote squash (merletons) give back every year for the initial investment. And fresh herbs, if the flock will use them, are another group of plants that are expensive to buy, and many are perennial as well.

    Contact a local stable or cattle farmer for free fertilizer. If they have a big pile out back, it is likely already well composted.

  • nancyjane_gardener

    Go down several threads to "Community planting day" Borderbarb posted a link to starting community gardens. Nancy

  • sinfonian

    Great idea! You have space, use it. Make sure it's south facing, without many trees or buildings to block the sun.

    I would start by mapping out the plan for garden beds. If funds are short, I wouldn't bother with raised beds. They can be added later if donations of wood are abundant. I recommend 4x8' beds at least 2 feet apart to allow for paths and reaching the middle from either side. That way, you can add wood in standard 8 foot lenghts later.

    Once you have your plan, mark them off in the area and have the volunteers go to work removing the sod. The sod can be placed elsewhere if you need to re-sod an area, or broken up in a compost pile near the beds. Trust me, you want a compost pile.

    Once the area is clear of sod, you should augment the soil with as much compost as your donations/funds will alow. The dirt won't have the nutrients to grow great crops. If you weren't growing for several months, I would suggest just turning over the sod and breaking it up. However, now is the time for salad crops. At least I think it is in your neck of the woods.

    Plant several types of leaf lettuce, spinach and any greens that are appropriate for your dinner table. I like Salad Bowl, Red Sails, Italiansheir for their rapid growing, color and texture. By growing leaf lettuce according to the spacing on the packet, you can simply trim off the top few inches and let it grow back over a week or two. Radishes and green onions are good to, maybe carrots. I'm not an expert on your aream but that makes for a decent salad in short order (carrots are slower growing).

    Save the northern most spaces for your tall crops so they don't shade your garden, though come summer time, that may be a good idea for your salad greens so they don't bolt so fast. By tall crops I mean tomatoes. You may want to get your parisioners to donate seedlings since you may not want to mess with growing from seed to start, and may not want to pay to buy them.

    I hope that helps. Others can help better for your area. Enjoy your garden and best of luck to you!

    Here is a link that might be useful: Sinfonian's garden adventure.

  • Elbourne

    Some great advice here. Thank ya'll so much.

    I'm considering raised beds using concrete blocks. We have a good supply of blocks that were donated when the post-Katrina FEMA trailers were decommissioned. If I use these to outline 4X8 beds, we'll have room for several plots along an existing limestone path on the south side of the church office.

    I'm tempted to turn an entire 150' X 200' area into a large scale garden, but I think a project of that size would prove unmanageable at this point. Even though we would have the hands to establish it in March, I doubt we could maintain it. Perhaps starting somewhat small will enlist local interest and we can keep room for future growth.

    I definitely need to start a compost. Do you think it would be a good idea to turn a group of kids loose with rakes to gather a huge pile of leaves from the woods behind the church property? We could then just let that pile sit, to harvest rich compost next year. I'd also love to set up a compost for the food scraps from our kitchen along with spent coffee grounds. We drink a lot of coffee around here. :)

    I will post updates of this project as it progresses on my Rebuild Lakeshore blog. Thank you so much.

    Pastor Don

  • alabamanicole

    Pastor Don, I think your instinct to start smaller is right on the money.

  • iam3killerbs

    Alternating layers of leaves and coffee grounds would make excellent compost.

    What you'd want is to have the kids gather a pile of leafs you can consider a "brown" resource and form the pile as you go along by layering them with coffee grounds and non-meat, non-dairy food waste -- things that are known as "greens" in compost lingo.

    Good compost requires a mix of green and brown to get the pile "working".

    Here's one of many resources about making compost: http://www.compost-info-guide.com/beginner_guide.htm

    Honesty, I rarely bother to turn my piles. They take longer to "work" when cold, but they get there in due time and I always have some ready when I need it.

  • glib

    A good soil helps in many ways that are not easily seen by the untrained eye. More disease resistance, better utilization of fertilizer, better water retention, and better root development.

    So the principal task of your volunteer crew is to shovel manure in the beds. That is the only task that needs to be completed. Call a a dairy farm, rent a dump truck. 8 inches in each bed is not too much.

    Yes, it will limit your production this year, but there are things that grow happily in manure (tomatoes, potatoes, brassica, and squash for example), and most everything will grow if you go through the trouble of creating a soil pocket or compost pocket and place the seeds there. but you will be in very good shape next year.

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