Summer evenings are a time when many of us enjoy sitting down to fresh, locally-grown vegetables for dinner, whether it’s a ripe red tomato on a juicy cheeseburger or slices of zucchini served with barbeque chicken. But, for many Southwest Michigan residents, a regular supply of fresh vegetables isn’t so easy to come by.
Brenda Kolkman and Linda Clarey, two of eight coordinators of the Giving Garden in Kalamazoo, see these needs as inspiration for the hard work they put in from March through October on property generously provided by Humphrey Products and Kendall Electric in Kalamazoo, located at the corner of East N Avenue and Sprinkle Road.
Tucked between these two companies and a set of railroad tracks, the Giving Garden reaches its 20th year serving our community this year. The garden was founded by Master Gardener Mike Blakely in 1997. The current coordinators, also certified as Master Gardeners, now excitedly carry on Blakely’s legacy. Clarey has been there since the beginning, noting substantial growth of the garden beyond that of its plants.
“I started in ’97 with Mike and we only planted a fairly small portion compared to what we do now,” says Clarey. “I can remember the first year we got 5,000 pounds of produce. We were excited about that. And then I think the next year it went up to 8,000. And now, we’re averaging right around 15,000 pounds a year.”
The Giving Garden, which has produced up to 30,000 pounds of produce at its peak, is a volunteer project of the Master Gardeners of Kalamazoo County sponsored by Michigan State University Extension. In addition to the garden’s coordinators, community volunteers care for the land, with many drawn from the Master Gardeners program who are looking to fulfill hours required for certification. Diverse backgrounds intertwine to form the Giving Garden’s team. Volunteer gardeners include a local college professor, a chief financial officer, and everything in between. “When it all comes right down to it,” Kolkman explains, “we’re all here pushing our sleeves up and getting the job done and our hands dirty.”
The heart and the reward behind the entire team’s efforts are the vegetable recipients: Ministry with Community and Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes. By the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, when vegetables are picked up by one of the organizations, gardeners harvest, box, and weigh an ample supply. Frequent, consistent pickups ensure that the produce is always fresh. Clarey explains, “(The recipients) get a lot of other things from grocery stores and different pantries and stuff. But, they can’t really afford the fresh vegetables.” Striving to meet this need drives annual garden planning; coordinators use feedback from the organizations to determine which vegetables went over better than others to plant accordingly the next year.
Vegetable recipients are undoubtedly grateful. Janet Karpus, Member Services Director at Ministry with Community, shares, “We consider our meals at Ministry with Community as more than just food on a plate—the food our members eat here may be their only meal of the day, and so it’s important to us to provide a bountiful, beautiful plate of food and to give them a moment of relaxation, community, and joy. The food from the Giving Garden allows us to prepare great meals with not only dignity and respect, but with genuine real flavor!”
Gratitude of the local organizations is, in turn, passed from the Giving Garden to its property owners, Humphrey Products and Kendall Electric. Each October, the garden tops off its season by saying “thank you” to the companies’ employees by inviting their children and grandchildren to visit and select a pumpkin to bring home while enjoying cider and cookies.
Kolkman, Clarey, and their team find joy in the labor they put in, rallying as a tight-knit community to provide for regional residents in need. Describing the group’s culture, Clarey shares, “I love the time that we all spend together. We swap recipes. We laugh. We joke. We talk. We always have a little break in the middle of the day where we all sit and visit and have something to drink, and usually everybody brings snacks.” Kolkman chimes in, “I also think that it’s just the idea that we can all band together as a group of like-minded individuals. And we can accomplish a whole heck of a lot. We’re able to come out and do work and provide (for the vegetable recipients). It’s rewarding for me to see that and be able to help those who can’t do a whole lot of that kind of work right now themselves.”
What makes the plants grow in the Giving Garden? Clarey quickly responds, “Commitment.”
Rooted in passion and purpose, the Giving Garden coordinators and volunteers are putting their green thumbs to work, ensuring that many Southwest Michigan residents in need will enjoy that juicy red tomato or slice of zucchini along with the sunshine this summer.
You don’t have to be a Master Gardener to volunteer at the Giving Garden! This is a great place to learn. Interested gardeners may contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.
For more information on becoming a Master Gardener volunteer, contact Linda Whitlock at email@example.com or (269) 383-8815.