A garden by the community, for the community

Grand Island gardeners are expectantly watching the weather, waiting to get their hands dirty and plants in the ground. This will be the third growing season since the Center for Rural Affairs helped evitalize the community garden located next to the Third City Community Clinic in Grand Island, Nebraska, and 2019 might be the best year yet.

The garden manager, Ben Newton, has learned new skills after joining the garden last year, and has already been busily preparing the ground, starting seeds, getting gardeners excited, and informing them on the upcoming season. We recently sat down with Ben to ask him a few questions about his aspirations for the Third City Community Clinic garden, what he’s learned so far, what he’s excited for, and why it’s such a rewarding experience to be a member of a community garden.

Question: Since joining the garden last year as a manager, what are some of the more impressive results you’ve seen; from a personal, family, or community perspective?

Ben: Personally speaking, we had a ton of produce (including what seemed like an infinite supply of zucchini), bringing our produce spending to near zero for the entire summer. It really forced my family and I to be more intentional and creative with how we utilized produce, especially when you have an abundance of one crop. Through the classes the Center provided at the garden, we picked up the skills of canning, salsa making, and learned how to make zucchini more ways than I knew existed; we even learned how to make noodles out of zucchini. I really felt empowered, like I could grow my own food in a real way. It also felt a lot like meditation—playing with the soil, tending the plants—it was calming.

From a community perspective, it was really heartwarming to see people come together in the garden space. Conversation flowed freely between individuals who may have never crossed paths without the garden plots. People from the neighborhood, clinic patients, and members of the larger Grand Island community all came together and shared tips, tricks, and growing knowledge while their children played (and sometimes even pulled weeds). It was also really lovely to see how much produce the gardeners donated to the clinic for patients to take home with them and enjoy; I think the donation basket was kept full for most of the summer.

Question: Of all the experiences you’ve witnessed since joining the garden, which had the biggest impact on you?

Ben: As the manager of the garden, I really learned to lead by example and how to better communicate with the other gardeners and the community at large. It is really incredibly what you can learn when a group of folks get together to work toward a common goal. The thing that really sticks with me is how powerful and unexpected it was that laboring in the soil could bring such a sense of peace and calm.

Question: Tell me about some of the garden activities and experiences from last year that led to some of the personal and community changes you mentioned.

Ben: The everyday observations I made in the garden made it such an educational and community building experience: how to grow things in a certain way, what worked, what didn’t. I usually figured it out by doing different things and grouping different vegetables together. A big reason the garden was so healthy and productive was because we had a pollinator patch (a portion of the garden set aside for flowers that brought beneficial insects and pollinators) full of sunflowers, zinnias, milkweed, and native flowers. I had never done that before, but we are definitely planning to do it again. I heard other people in the city tell me they were having problems with their gardens (either from pests or just poor growth), but we didn’t experience any of that. I believe it had to do with the abundance of bees, butterflies, and moths living in our garden. One of my favorite things was being at the garden consistently. Getting to do the weeding, cleaning up the sidewalk, beautifying the area, and regular interaction with the garden; I loved that part.

Question: Do you see yourself doing anything differently in the coming season?

Ben: I would really like to work on getting to know the gardeners better personally, and involving the kids in the learning and gardening process.

Question: What are you most excited for in the 2019 growing season?

Ben: Personally, I am most excited to grow all sorts of chiles and start making salsa again. The salsa I made last year ran out in December, so I am really excited to make more. My daughter, who often joins me in the garden, loves to see things grow and eats greens fresh from the ground.

For the garden as a whole, I am really looking forward to seeing what all the gardeners are going to grow, and what I can learn from them (different recipes, produce I’m unfamiliar with, and hear their stories). We have already had our first garden meeting and all the plots are full; we have some new gardeners as well as returning gardeners from last year.

The Third City Community Clinic, dubbed “Nuestro Jardín” (“our garden” in Spanish) is a shining example of community members coming together to enjoy the summer growing season, connecting more closely with our food, and most importantly learning about and from each other.