The sign on the garden fence at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City reads “Lettuce” in bold letters.
It means Let us Feed Others. And they do — by growing enormous amounts of vegetables to give to local food banks.
Last year, the church donated more than 5,000 pounds of food. It is hard to get your head around that. Imagine, though, a large tomato that weighs about a pound, and then imagine thousands of them.
Of course, the church grows a variety of other vegetables, and most are started with seeds. Around March of each year, Clyde Seery starts planting seeds that go into the greenhouse the church has fashioned for the garden.
The start of this garden is a bit like the biblical parable of the mustard seed. A tiny seed is planted in a field and it is not likely to even sprout, but it does and grows to be a huge, healthy tree.
A seed, an idea for a garden, was in Peggy Hausler’s mind for the land that St. Andrew had bought to build a new church. It would be a few years before construction started, so Hausler, along with other members, cleared an area and created several small gardens.
After the first summer, it was decided that a single larger garden would better serve the church members and provide food for the community. It has expanded now into a half-acre.
But they needed a plan for this new big garden. How to make the best use of every inch if they wanted to feed the community as well as the church?
Hausler said: ”We reached out to Barb Schintler (a master gardener), who took the dimensions of the garden plot and provided us with the first blueprint of the garden, including what crops we might grow, how to space them out, and so forth.”
The next year showed an increase in production and, by the third year, they had made a contract with the local food banks to supply them with fresh vegetables.
Clyde Seery and Dedi Walker gave me a tour of the garden, explaining as we went along the unique watering system, the experiments in planting, and how they got started volunteering.
Seery was a representative for Ball Seed Co. for 50 years and his horticulture experience and ideas have influenced this “giving garden” for several years. Walker is a dedicated worker in the garden, but also organizes the schedule of other workers and keeps all the statistics for pounds grown and donated. This year they have already donated a thousand pounds from spring plants and the real harvesting is just beginning.
This past March, Seery planted tomato seeds and ended up with about 100 flats of seedlings. Some were taken to the three food banks, church members adopted many, and the rest went into the garden. They had other vegetable seedlings in surplus, too, Seery said, and donated hundreds more of those.
What do they grow and how do they grow this prolific garden?
Tomato plants thrive alongside the fence, using it for support. Green beans climb up a hoop made from hog wire panels. Red cabbage grows in long rows of silver leaves. Chard sports multiple colors.
And more than 20 raised beds are dedicated to other vegetables. A new experiment this year is the bales of straw lining the fence and planted with vegetables.
Cucumbers, squash, turnips, eggplants, okra, cabbage and onions are a few of their crops. Peppers are very popular, not just the green, but the hot Jalapeno and others even hotter. Some will go into the salsa they make in the fall from their tomatoes.
This is a special garden, beautifully cared for by volunteers, and definitely a “giving garden.” I look forward to another visit this fall, to a taste of the salsa, and checking on what grew in those bales of straw.
This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: At Iowa City church, a garden for the community grows…and grows