By JAN WILLMS
City kids don’t always have an opportunity to plant a garden. But with the help of organizations, volunteers and donations, about 130 children will have the chance to watch plants and seeds grow into healthy vegetables they can share with their families.
St. Paul Midway YMCA Teaching Growing Gardens started with a conversation back in January between Cathy Quinlivan, the Y’s director of healthy living, and Susan Schuster, senior consultant of community affairs for Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS).
“Susan had started connecting for-profit organizations to nonprofits in 2009 to give food to the community,” Quinlivan said. “She said she had been looking for a year for children’s centers with youngsters at the poverty line to engage BCBS employees to form a partnership. She did a site visit and thought the YMCA would be perfect.” Approximately 90 per cent of the children are under the poverty line.
As discussions for a community garden at the Y’s location at 1761 University Ave. continued, the plan was turning into reality by May of this year. Quinlivan started talking to Mary Maguire Lerman, a Y board member and master gardener. Ideas were exchanged on how to create the community garden.
In the third week of May, Vicky Vogels from the Minnesota State Horticultural Society (MSHS) entered the picture. MSHS had a Garden-in-a-Box program, with kits including a 3’ x 4’ fabric raised-bed garden box, soil and vegetable plants. MSHS donated 40 of those boxes to the St. Paul Midway YMCA.
The goal of the Garden-in-a-Box program is to teach people to grow their own fresh produce and experience the benefits of gardening; affordable, healthy food; exercise; outdoor activity and community growth.
“We got some staff and volunteers and a flatbed trailer and moved 440 pounds of soil,” Quinlivan explained. “We made three trips bringing it here.” The plants were stored in Lerman’s yard for a period of time, and on June 14 volunteers from BCBS, the U of M extension staff, the Y, Open Hands Midway Food Shelf and the St. Paul Sunrise Rotary, as well as individuals who heard about the project, assisted children from the day camps and childcare at the Y in planting.
David Motzenbecker, a landscape architect with the Cuningham Group, designed the garden structure. The focal point of the site is an oak tree with rays coming out from the tree. With funding from BCBS, the Y has purchased stock tanks that will be placed on the site in July.
“The gardens look permanent, but are temporary,” Quinlivan remarked. “We have our Christmas tree sales there, so we will have to put the boxes away and put them up again next year.”
But for now, the kids are growing food for themselves and their families, as well as the food shelf.
Although the Y has a hose, Quinlivan said she has gotten little watering cans for the children. “I like to have as many hands helping as possible,” she noted.
She said the youth groups are really caring for their gardens, watering and weeding and cleaning debris from the grounds. They will soon be staking tomatoes. Annual and perennial flowers have also been added.
To receive the Garden-in-a-Box kits, the project must be sustainable and continue for two years.
Quinlivan said garden curriculum teachers are helping the kids look at various problems they may encounter, such as what to do if there is too much rain or how to handle critters in the garden.
Okra and bean seeds are starting to come up, Quinlivan noted. Cherry and regular tomatoes, kale, beets and bush beans are among the crops being raised.
“In the future, we want to make scarecrows and look at composting and rain barrels,” she added. “But right now we are trying to be good stewards of what the earth can provide us.”
She said the doors of the Y are open to serve the community in whatever way it can to make people healthier.
“This will be a good model for all YMCAs,” Quinlivan said.
The Garden-in-a-Box project is a positive factor in so many ways, according to Quinlivan. The vegetables can provide healthier eating and serve in preventing diabetes and obesity. The Y is available for exercise for people of all ages. The project can also be used to teach cooking methods and food safety.
“The Teaching Giving Garden just fits right along with healthy living,” she added.