Growing vegetables provides time for family, food, and fun for Santee gardener

When Kayleen Johnson started her garden to incorporate more fresh foods into her family’s meals, she didn’t realize growing food together would also help them grow closer as a family.

Santee, Nebraska, the small Dakota community Kayleen calls home, and where she plants her garden each year, is nestled in the bluffs along the Missouri River, on the Santee Reservation. Her garden is approximately 9 feet by 5 feet and hosts several kinds of vegetables suitable for growing in the climate in that area, including different varieties of tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, cilantro, and jalapenos, among others.

Since the garden is right next to their home, the family has easy access to the plot, and spends many of their summer hours tending the plants.

“I had no experience with gardening when I started,” said Kayleen. “My children love tomatoes and cucumbers, and my partner likes to add herbs and other vegetables into different meals. The thought of being able to grow our own food made me want to start our own garden.”

For the past three years, Kayleen has received assistance from the Center for Rural Affairs to get her garden started each growing season.

Each spring, Center staff assist with preparing the soil in the garden plot and provide plants for the family’s garden. Staff offer additional assistance throughout the growing season, like providing support cages for tomatoes and other plants.

Kayleen also receives support from loved ones.

“My whole family helps in the garden,” said Kayleen. “Sometimes my boyfriend’s mother, grandmother, and cousin come over to help us get the weeds out while we visit with each other.”

Lizzie Swalley, community food associate with the  Center for Rural Affairs, loves to see Kayleen’s enthusiasm for her home garden.

“Kayleen chose to have a garden based on her success from last year,” said Lizzie. “She told us her daughter, who is in Kindergarten, loved to help weed and water their garden, and would also pick tomatoes and eat them right off the vine, as if they were apples. This is one of our hopes, that we reach youth and families who want to grow their own food and consume it.”

The gardener enjoys main aspects of growing her own food, but her favorite part is tending the vegetables with her children.

“They help with watering all the plants, and they are patient and understand the process it takes to grow your own food,” said Kayleen. “They’re always happy to help, and even more excited to finally go outside with a bowl to pick their own tomatoes to eat.”

In addition to valuable quality time with her family and friends, Kayleen uses gardening as a teaching tool for her children.

“I enjoy the thought of being able to plant a seed in my children as we garden together, teaching them about healthy foods, and showing them how to garden and grow their own food,” she said.

Kayleen sees a long future for their family garden, and hopes the garden grows with her family.

“I hope to expand the size of the garden so we have room to grow new vegetables,” she said. “We enjoy gardening every year. I love spending that time with my family.”