Garden of giving
In an empty grass field behind a church, they built a garden. And they planted seeds. But these were no ordinary seeds.
Sure, there were seeds for peas and lettuce and beans. And the vegetables grew, and the garden flourished.
But the gardeners harvested more than vegetables. They cultivated a sense of community and self-sufficiency, and rooted a web of symbiotic relationships that endured long past the short summers, after the last ripe tomato was picked.
These are the Canyon View Gardens, built by a congregation of gardeners and shared with all who desire to share in the work and the fruits of the labors.
It’s the fourth season for the garden, located next to Canyon View Vineyard Church, 736 24 1/2 Road, in Grand Junction. It’s a non-traditional community group garden in the sense that the harvest belongs to everyone who helps — no individual plot belongs to anyone but the organization. Some community gardens rent out spaces of soil to individuals, but “that didn’t seem very community to us,” said Rick Kenagy, the garden’s director.
The garden was born out of the church’s benevolence fund, which helps applicants with financial hardships pay rent or other bills. But, the fund didn’t offer a way for those who benefited from the congregation’s assistance to feel invested or learn new skills.
“I was very tired of writing checks with no sense of empowerment,” Kenagy said. “Paying someone’s utility bill or their rent takes care of the symptom but not the problem.”
The garden provided a chance for “redemptive lift,” as Kenagy puts it, giving those who need the financial assistance a way to give back so it doesn’t feel like a handout. The relationship also makes the garden and the assistance more sustainable, as the cycle of gifting and giving is propelled by the volunteerism and the success of the garden.
The garden serves its purpose locally to bring people together, to help educate and feed anyone who is willing to learn and help. But ultimately, this garden is destined to become a model of growing food and growing a community for other places. The campus ministry intends to export this model to establish gardens in other places, and they have plans to start a garden in Nicaragua soon.
They’ve branched out from the old garden standbys of tomatoes and peppers to grow veggies such as bok choy, watercress, lemongrass and taro. They also have nine varieties of table grapes trellised along the back fence, because “this is the Vineyard Church, so we have to have grapes,” said garden leader Jim Drummond.
Since the garden started in 2009, it has grown from 8,000 square feet to about two-thirds of an acre. The first year, they harvested about 10,000 pounds of produce. That amount grew to 15,000 pounds the second year, and 25,000 pounds the third year.
The outside garden uses the Mittleider method of vegetable gardening, a densely-planted, water-efficient system named for its founder, Jacob Mittleider. Inside the greenhouse, gardeners are using aquaponics, which allow them to grow year-round, in floating, soil-less beds for the plants. Fish live in the water and help fertilize the plants with their waste. The plants filter the waste from the water and it’s recirculated again through the system.
This symbiotic growing method is not only effective, it’s a symbol of the help going on at the gardens. People who need fresh produce or want to gain knowledge of best growing practices can volunteer at the garden. The garden flourishes with the work of all these people coming together and sharing the burden. And some of those volunteers take the knowledge they’ve gained and start their own gardens to share vegetables with others.
“We hope they get blessed with a love of gardening,” said Mark Gibbons, one of the garden’s leaders. “It’s not just about the food. It’s about education for the community as well.”
The garden truly is for anyone who wants to contribute some sweat equity and share in the fruits of the labor. Kenagy estimates that 60 percent of the volunteers are not members of the church.
The community interest of gardening really brings people together.
“We plant together, we weed together, and we harvest together,” Kenagy said.
At least once a week, participants gather to harvest after sharing in the workload. The volunteers get a share of the harvest, up to 25 percent of the harvest is donated to low-income seniors living in certain housing areas, and then the extra is put up for sale at their Saturday market, usually from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the gardens. The proceeds are re-invested in the garden to help defray costs. They also accept donations of other gardeners’ extra produce — a sort of reverse farmers market — which they sell and use to support the garden.