If you haven’t noticed already, Pleasant Hill is now home to a community garden, open to residents for their planting enjoyment.
The garden, which is already full for the 2013 growing season, is the work of Kevin Umphress and his right-hand gal, Iris Swanson.
“It wasn’t a new idea with the city,” Umphress says. The idea had been brought to the city council several times, but no one had followed through with it.
It took Umphress’ knowhow and Swanson’s organizational skills to finally bring the idea to fruition.
The first step was working with Heath Ellis, Park and Recreation Director, to find a location. At the time, Umphress says, the idea was just to find land, till up sections and let people have their way with it. Then, the issue of water came into play. They didn’t know how they were going to get water to the gardens.
“I presented some of the lots to the city council, and that is when they suggested we use this lot (next to the public library),” Umphress says. “I never would have considered that.”
Once they moved into the lot, one with water accessible from the library, the issue of fencing came up. Umphress explains the need for the fencing was to keep the deer from eating the vegetables and wreaking havoc in the garden. Adding a fence meant meeting city requirements and code.
“At this point, we still didn’t have any money,” Umphress laughs. “It was one of those little hurdles.”
As these problems came up, the small planning committee was staring down January and knowing they were really pressing time to get the garden ready for spring.
That’s when Umphress turned to Swanson to help get him organized.
“Anything Kevin does I believe in,” she says.
“It was the two of us,” Umphress says. “We had the land, but the fence was still a problem.”
They again turned to members of city council and found a way to get around the fencing requirements of the commercialized zone. They realized it could be zoned as recreational, which altered the fence standards.
Umphress, who seems to always know where to go, was able to make a connection with someone who worked at Lowe’s of Altoona. He helped Umphress with the process of applying for a grant through the company, in which the company offers a certain amount of money for community projects each year.
In the end, Lowe’s accepted their grant application. At that point, Umphress decided to push his good luck and asked for lumber for several raised gardens.
Somehow, Lowe’s got their numbers mixed up and what was supposed to be 12 raised gardens turned into 20.
“Some people from the city and Lowe’s came together, and we built it all in the day, and they paid for all of the fencing,” Umphress says
Initially, Umphress and Swanson had hoped the garden would be ready for Mother’s Day 2012, but that didn’t happen. Because of that, some gardeners didn’t get in until very late in the season.
Even so, they had a full house.
“And that’s where it started,” Umphress laughs.
One box in the garden is set aside to raise produce for Hope Ministries. Last year, the box just held lettuce, but Umphress says they may shake it up a little this year.
“They feed over 1,700 people,” Swanson says. Both are happy to know they helped by providing produce for fresh salads.
Because of the success last year, the city allotted some funds for the garden, which went toward adding four more raised gardens.
All of the gardens this year are already filled, and there is a short waiting list in case anyone backs out.
The most difficult part of gardening last year, Swanson says, was the weather. It was difficult to have a good grow season when it was so hot and dry.
“But it wasn’t that disappointing because of the companionships and friends that were made,” she says.
Umphress says water won’t be an issue this year because the city has dug a line and brought it up through the middle of the garden.
“It’s just really come together,” he says.
This year the goal is to solidify a planning committee and board to keep the garden running. Both Umphress and Swanson plan to step down after this year and hand the reins over to others to go forward with the garden.
“We have numerous people who have agreed to step up,” Swanson says. “It’s just a matter of getting things organized.”
Umphress says it was always the plan for them to step back after two years and allow other members of the community to take over making decisions.
As far as building more boxes, they are looking forward to offering taller raised gardens for community members who have a difficult time reaching ground level gardens. They also plan to add benches and signage that will match the other city parks.
“I would be surprised if we didn’t build a couple of the higher gardens in the fall,” Umphress says. “But nothing is for sure at this point.”
They are also going to be adding a share basket where gardeners can place extra produce they have grown to share with other members. Once a week, Umphress will be collecting what hasn’t been taken and donating the food to Hope Ministries.
Umphress emphasizes that the property where the garden is currently located is owned by the city, and the garden may have to relocate at a later date if the property is needed for city usage.
“Our job, as citizens, is to use what they have allowed us to use to the best of our ability and manage it properly so consideration will be given when we have to give it away,” he says. “We want them to still want a community garden.”
Umphress says most of the challenges have been taken care of and, going into this year, the most difficult part should be getting things to grow.
Many of the gardeners from last year are returning and are looking forward to catching up with fellow planters from last year and meeting new ones.
For Doris Peterson, it is returning to what she knows. Prior to moving into a townhome in Pleasant Hill, she always grew her own vegetables. When she heard about the community garden, she jumped on board.
“It just sounded like a great opportunity to get involved, and I met people lots of great people,” she says.
Sherri and Roger Cullins are gearing up for their second year of having a lot at the community garden. The Cullins found out about the garden through a neighbor after just moving to Pleasant Hill last year.
Sherri says the best part of the community garden was working hand in hand with Roger. She says it was a project they worked together on and are looking forward to doing the same again this year. Last year, they were two of the late comers and didn’t get to plant some of the things they are hoping to grow this year.
“We have tomato cages and all that in the garage just waiting,” Roger says.
The Cullins also are anticipating the socialization that comes with the community garden. One couple they met through the garden and its planning meetings is Jeannie and Tom Miller.
The Millers were happy to see the garden open for the community because they had been utilizing a community garden in Ankeny and the drive to and from hindered their ability to work the garden as much as they would have liked.
Ann Hanson is a return gardener who says she really appreciates the organization and planning Umphress and Swanson have put into the garden. She says the one thing she learned from gardening last year was to keep her herbs at home.
“I like to use them fresh, and they weren’t at home when I needed them,” she says.
Other than that, she is ready to go and excited to add more vegetables to her list of things to grow including spinach and radishes.
Cindy Konrad, who is new to the community garden this year, is looking forward to having her own garden. Konrad grew up with gardens but hasn’t had one for several years because of lack of yard space.
“This is the first time I’ve had my own garden in a long time,” she says. Like others, she is looking forward to fresh vegetables and the fun and relaxation of gardening.
Another perk is that all the members of the community garden have something to offer each other, be it help with gardening or ideas and tips such as planting marigolds to keep the bugs off the plants, or growing radishes early in the season so they don’t get too spicy.
“It’s so good that people are starting to learn how to garden,” Hanson says. “It’s a healthier way to eat.”
According to the gardeners, the benefits are near never-ending, from healthy eating, socializing and the relaxation.
“And it’s just fun to play in the dirt,” Konrad adds with a laugh.