HOWELL – At 9 a.m. on Saturday morning Dana Vargo was already harvesting potatoes – purple, red and white ones – grown from six plants in her plot in the Howell Organic Community Gardens.
The garden is nearly at full capacity, with members of the community claiming all but one of the plots to grow their carrots, lettuce, squash, tomatoes, watermelon and even edible flowers. It was started three years ago by Vargo and is now a thriving nonprofit that helps feed local food banks, educate community groups and bring people together.
The planting season kicked off in the springtime, when the garden plots were little more than dirt patches. Now, the garden is a sea of leafy plants, colorful flowers and sprouting vegetables.
Planting A Row For Our Neighbors
Andy Valdes, who is also a Master Gardener, helps garden members give back to the Howell community through PAR.
The acronym PAR stands for Plant A Row for the Hungry, a nationwide movement that encourages farmers and gardeners to plant one extra row and donate what grows there to those in need. At the Howell Organic Community Gardens, that “row” is actually the entire perimeter of the garden. In the garden’s first year, 212 pounds of organic fresh produce were donated. Last year, a whopping 1,066 pounds were harvested and donated to local pantries such as Joshua House in Farmingdale, the Howell Senior Center and Howell Food Pantry.
A few weeks ago, they received a letter of thanks from Melanie Decker, Director of the Howell Senior Center. Garden donations feed their “Just in Thyme” Senior Cupboard, and Decker shared what a treat it is when seniors are able to get fresh vegetables, especially when many of them are forced to choose between buying food and paying an electric bill. She said that last year, they would use tomatoes donated from the garden in salads to serve senior members who came in.
“If every community did that – took care of home – if would make a big difference,” said Valdes.
Donating to PAR is a community effort. Nearly all garden members contribute to the cause in some way – by bringing seeds, sharing plants, tending to the PAR areas near their plots through a rotating water schedule, pest patrol, weeding, reseeding, harvesting and replanting. Throughout the season they often donate vegetables grown in their own plots that are too much to eat for their own families.
“It’s all of us. It’s not one person. Everyone does what they can on whatever scale it is and all of us together are reaching out to people we don’t know but they’re right here – they’re our neighbors,” added Valdes.
There’s no count yet on how much has been donated this year, but food has been harvested and delivered to local pantries since May.
Members Teaching Members
Kathie Giri, who now sits on the garden’s nonprofit board, remembers seeing a sign the town put up for the gardens a few years ago and coming out to the first meeting. She thought it would be a fun place to join and meet people.
“I knew nothing,” she said. “It amazes me. Every time I come here, I learn something new. Who knew you could grow peanuts? Dana taught me that last year.”
She also recently learned that you can save leftover potatoes, cut them in half, let them dry out, and then plant them to grow more potatoes.
What she did know is that she loved the outdoors, and that one time she grew a cucumber plant in the backyard that grew to monstrous proportions. Giri now loves coming to the gardens at night, when it’s peaceful and quiet, and looking around at what everyone is growing.
“All these plots are awesome. You can see everyone’s hard work, what they’re putting into it.”
Terri Madreperla lives in the Equestra senior community, and usually stops by with her husband Scott to water, weed and harvest their plot of tomatoes, lettuce, cauliflower, peppers, yellow squash and broccoli. She said the sense of community in the garden has been great, and that everyone emails each other with helpful tips. Just recently, someone found a swallowtail caterpillar and let members know to leave it alone, since it would turn into a pretty butterfly soon. Someone else recently donated a bunch of tomato plants, and she was able to snag some to use in her plot.
So far, she’s made a Caesar salad with all the lettuce she harvested from her plot, which she said was a big hit with her picky eater husband. She said it’s nice knowing the area is fenced in and safe from pesky garden eaters like deer, which are frequent visitors to Equestra.
“It’s a nice network,” said Valdes. “We look after each other’s rows and give advice – you go away, I’m watching your row – we’re all looking after each other.”
Every member brings a little something to the garden. Some members have previous gardening skills and are quite handy, some are better at organizing or decorating, and some bring a lot of enthusiasm or have strong social skills, but as Valdes says, “it all flows, like a family.”
People are always coming and going throughout the day. Les Nagy, a commercial fisherman by trade and self-proclaimed Earth lover, planted Hyssop herb plants around the perimeter of the garden to give off nutrients and attract pollinators.
“I would say that anybody that owns a plot comes at least twice, three times a week,” said board member Rick Pereira
Group work days are held for members to meet and get to know one another while they garden as well. They hope to have a BBQ at the end of the year where garden members can bring dishes they made from food grown in their plots. Last year, they were at least able to share recipes through email.
The Howell Organic Community Gardens get their mulch and wood chips from Howell Township, but are in constant need of organic fertilizers and topsoil for PAR and to continue community programs. Several Girl Scout and 4-H groups already own plots this year and come to garden, but the Arc of Monmouth County will soon be gardening with them once a week for the remainder of the season as well.
Another reason is that despite giving it a lot of love, the soil there is very poor.
Pereira said the immediate goals for the garden are to increase PAR, ramp up donations and become more involved in the community. An Eagle Scout project to build a shed on the property will start next month, too.
“Our towns now are so huge and there’s no gathering place. People come from different points of Howell and we’re here together and you’ve met people you wouldn’t have,” Valdes said. “There’s that camaraderie. We miss that in our society. There’s no place to be together and just enjoy doing something.”