Feeding a community
An innovative gardening concept comes to La Verne
by Jennifer Cuevas
photography by Nicholas Mitzenmacher
The garden overflows with vegetables—tomatoes, watermelon, bell peppers, squash and chilies. Near the garden is a large tree, and its shade is a relief on this blazing hot La Verne day. Sitting under the tree is Michael Wolfsen, who co-manages the La Verne Church of the Brethren garden, named “Peace and Carrots.” Her husband, Mike Wolfsen (his formal name is spelled Michael too) is also in the garden. With a shovel in hand and a barrel nearby, Mike digs with patience and precision into an empty garden patch under the sunny October sky. It is a task he has done many times. The Wolfsens spend at least a few hours a week here, sometimes more in the peak harvest season. It is a labor of love project, and they, along with their fellow gardeners members, are happy to share the fruits—and the veggies—of their labor. “Peace and Carrots” is more than just a symbolic gesture of good will; it literally feeds local people in need. More than 900 pounds in fresh fruits (such as strawberries and watermelon) and vegetables (including varieties of tomatoes, squash and corn) have been donated to a Pomona-based food bank called “The Beta Center,” from the garden’s first year harvest.
About two and a half years ago, the Wolfsens, along with a committee of parishioners, proposed to change an unused grassy lot into a communal garden. The detailed process required Ms. Wolfsen, along with her original nine committee friends, to present twice before the La Verne Church of the Brethren Church Council to discuss the pros and cons of environmental, legal and logistical concerns. The garden program was eventually passed, and the organic garden was born. “We used the old pre-school area that was covered in grass and converted it to the garden area. Even the posts from the fence were recycled from that lot. It really is a ‘green’ space,” says Michael.
There are 28 individual plots in the ground and four raised beds. “The ground plots are 4 X 12, and all of the areas have an automatic drip irrigation system to conserve water,” she says with enthusiasm. The garden does not use pesticides; instead it relies strictly on organic products, such as “Bumper Crop,” to help amend the soil. The original garden committee members (Dot Hess, Deb Jahnke, Bev Rupel, Vern Jahnke, Christine Meek, Barbara Smythe, Tracy Taylor, Mike Wolfsen and Michael Wolfsen, chair; plus new members Anne Lilje and Susan Shibuya) want the garden to be a self sufficient, inspiring community service experience. To help these concepts flourish, gardeners have free access to mulch, compost, tools and literature for reference—plus support from their fellow gardeners and garden committee members. Additionally, there is an area in the corner of the garden, where the public can leave household food scraps, like used coffee grinds, banana peels and egg shells (except for meat), to make compost for the garden. Garden clean up days are open to the public.
The gift that keeps on giving
Part of the garden’s mission is to donate a portion of each harvest to the Beta Center food bank, a project run by Inland Valley Hope Partners. This Pomona-based non-profit organization feeds thousands of local residents monthly. Claudia Yerena, food security manager at Beta Center, accepts donations from the public on the organization’s behalf and has seen first-hand how food can also feed someone’s spirit. “All our clients were very grateful for the hard work put into growing the vegetables. I am extremely grateful to Peace and Carrots for all their donations. Thank you.”
The idea of service is a virtue echoed by the Church of the Brethren. “In our Church, we don’t proselytize. We believe in action and service. The garden helps us fulfill this idea of service and helping one another,” says Mike. Members hope the garden continues to be a vehicle for community service and a way to fulfill the most basic human need—to provide food to function as a human being. “I can’t tolerate the idea of some kid who is out there hungry. We are fortunate enough to be middle class now, but Mike and I both grew up where sometimes you had to eat oatmeal for dinner because there was no food. If a kid goes to school hungry, he can’t learn. Food is important for learning,” says Michael.
Peace and Carrots
Initial news about the garden sparked interest from Church members and local residents. The idea has caught on. The garden’s ground breaking fall harvest 2010 included both novice and experienced gardeners, including a judge, a professor, students, a minister, a graphic designer/writer, a 13-year-old Eagle Scout and children as young as 3. Peace and Carrots publishes a quarterly newsletter, “Gleanings,” and accepts non-church members. Participation costs $40 for one plot, per year (cycle from Jan. 1 – Dec. 31) or $25 for six months. Applications are available in the Church of the Brethren’s office, 2425 E St., and are reviewed by the committee. Upon being assigned a plot, the gardener has up to two weeks to cultivate and plant. The garden patch cannot be left fallow for more than three weeks.
Although there is a sense of independence, the idea of collective support is key. “One of the great things about gardening in community is it allows you the support of other gardeners—not that they do the gardening for you, but there is always somebody who can help. Some have more expertise in something you may want to grow and can share tips,” says Janet Ober, associate minister of the La Verne Church of the Brethren, also a recent gardener.
Tools of the trade are available in the garden tool shed—free mulch, compost and literature—to help gardeners maximize harvests. Besides bringing a green thumb, participants must bring the actual seeds to plant and other amenities, such as a pair of gloves.
“We’re still pretty new to it. But the way Michael and Michael set things up, you get a lot of support, a lot of help, and the watering is all automated. It’s about as easy as gardening can get for novices like us,” says Chuck Duffie, a local graphic designer and writer, who participates with his wife and two children. His youngest daughter Nara was inspired first by the garden concept and encouraged her family to join. “I heard about the garden early on, when Michael introduced it to the Church Board, but I didn’t reserve a space at that time. When my youngest daughter Nara saw the garden herself—saw everything growing right there behind the Church—she felt very strongly about being a part of that. So she was the one who led us to the garden,” says Duffie. He and his family were motivated so much, that they started a home garden too; now 100 percent of their Peace and Carrots harvest goes to the Beta Center.
Ober is new to gardening as well and decided to try it out last spring. “You don’t have to be an expert gardener to be a part of this garden.” Starting in April, she planted a variety of tomatoes, corn, watermelon and bell peppers. “It’s fun and inspiring. And you can see who had luck with some foods more than others. Like this year, others planted corn, but I was the only one who had edible corn so other gardeners asked me what I did different to help them next time. You see others’ successes and draw inspiration.”
Even while it is cold, gardens can overflow with fresh vegetables. “In California, in the winter, you can grow ‘cool’ vegetables that do well in cool weather,” says Michael. According to the popular garden website, Burpee®, some of the types of veggies that do well in La Verne’s winter gardens include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, Kale, celery, collards, beets, peas, Chinese pea pods, fava beans, lettuce, radishes and basil.
Creativity flourishes in the garden
For Sean Bernard, University of La Verne associate professor of writing, the idea of the garden was the perfect concept to bridge food literature with creative writing. In spring 2009, he utilized the garden as a tool to inspire his students to write about food. “Students had to go out twice a semester to help in the garden,” says Bernard. “We planted spinach, tomatoes, strawberries, peas, cilantro, garlic, beats, radishes and other food with success.” It is a course he plans to offer again. “You decide what to plant. And when you plant your own food, you discover that it’s insanely better. Tomatoes off the vine are fantastic. I don’t think that it necessarily tastes better because it’s organic, but because it’s fresh.”
Peace and Carrots is more than just planting fruits and vegetables in the garden. Participation in the garden space cultivates a sense of unity in community and continues to be a powerful public service project that extends self-sustaining goodwill, far beyond the borders of 4 X 12 patches of land.
To learn more about the Peace and Carrots garden initiative, visit the office of Church of the Brethren in La Verne at 2425 E St., (909) 593-1887 or visit www.lavernecob.org.
Also see the companion piece, “Planting is not just for the pros: Seven steps to create a vegetable garden.”