It all started with a class of kids planting cabbage and peas in their Sunday school class back in 2010. A few weeks later, the little seedlings were planted in the grassy field behind St. Mark Lutheran Church in Lacey. With the help of some dedicated gardeners, church members and many helping hands from elementary school students, the field grew into the St. Mark Community Garden: An acre-sized community garden producing over 12,000 pounds of produce for local food banks last year.
Brent Chapman, a member of St. Mark Lutheran Church with a Ph.D. in Horticulture, who supervises the ground crews for the Capitol Campus, started the garden with three main goals:
- Educate children about gardening and where food comes from.
- Donate food to the local food banks.
- Create raised garden beds for people in the community to use for free.
Every year over 20 classes of students from Mountain View Elementary go on a field trip right across the street from their school. They help plant the center area of the garden and learn about growing food. Of course, no trip for kids would be complete without a snack, so they also get to munch on some vegetables like the ones they have planted. Just like the kids almost 10 years ago, they are learning about where their food comes from and helping contribute healthy food to their community.
School groups are not the only kids to have contributed time to and learned from the community garden: Girl Scout troops, Cub Scout packs and middle school horticulture clubs have volunteered time over the years. Each group of kids that comes to help at the garden comes away with a better understanding of food and the earth – gifts from the garden and those who work there.
In its first year, the St. Mark Community Garden donated 310 pounds of produce to the Thurston County Food Bank. It was through the help of another community garden that the small grass field expanded to a full acre producing over 12,000 pounds of organic food for local food banks. The Olympia Kiwanis, who manage several successful gardens, shared their knowledge to help set up a low pressure irrigation system at St. Mark. The Kiwanis also asked if St. Mark would grow potatoes for the food banks and provided seed potatoes. Now with 1,000 row feet of potatoes, the tubers get their own planting party in the spring and harvesting party in the fall. In later years St. Mark added carrots and other vegetables.
The large garden, which feels almost like a jungle of leafy green vegetables at the peak of summer, is undoubtedly the main show piece of the St. Mark Community Garden. However, there are 46 raised bed garden plots adjacent to it. These beds are open for members of the community to adopt to do their own personal gardening, no green thumb required. Many people who adopt these small garden spots live in homes or apartments where having a garden is not possible. In return, the St. Mark Community Garden does ask that people donate three hours a month to working in the large food bank garden. That, and do not plant mint. It smells amazing, but will grow out of control before you can save the other plants.
The raised beds also benefit from drip irrigation with water paid for by St. Mark – all that is needed are some plants, a willingness to weed and a passion for fresh food. While the large garden produces just a few vegetables in bulk, people use the smaller, raised beds to grow a wide variety of plants. Some are a patchwork of various types of lettuce. Others contain peas and beans racing up the support cages. And here and there you will see a splash of color – a bright orange marigold cheering up the garden and keeping the pests away. Or a bright strawberry peeking out asking to be picked and eaten on the spot. There is no judgment here – all of the gardeners appreciate the draw of freshly picked fruit.
On any given morning during the summer, you can wander back behind St. Mark Lutheran Church and find several dedicated gardeners hard at work. Two of them, Dotty Isley and Gary Delozier, do the bulk of the work maintaining the garden through the summer and are always willing to take some time to consult with and mentor new gardeners. The purpose of the St. Mark Community Garden is not just producing food for the community, but also to build community. And it takes a community for the garden to produce. Work parties are organized by the Gail Frare, garden coordinator, and helping hands are always welcome. Contact him at 360-870-6267 for more information. Individuals and community groups are always welcome.