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A Groundbreaking Garden

Wesley UMC raised their garden beds for easy access!
Wesley UMC raised their garden beds for easy access!

More than 40 giant fabric bins filled with soil are the home of a unique new garden at Wesley United Methodist Church (UMC) in Urbana. Crisp lettuce, kale, radishes, and beet greens are ready for harvest, and little pepper, bean, and tomato plants are starting to take off. Later this summer, radishes, chard, beets, and collards will be harvested and given at the peak of freshness to people in need.

Thanks to this innovative garden design and volunteers from many faiths, the Wesley Food Pantry expects to have 1,000 pounds of fresh, local produce available to their clients this year!

Katie Thomas, Director of the Wesley Food Pantry, dreamed of growing fresh vegetables for the pantry after seeing another food pantry in town start a garden. The supply of donations of fresh produce simply isn’t sufficient to feed the four to five hundred households that the pantry serves each month.

Katie Thomas holds radishes in the Wesley UMC garden.
Katie Thomas holds radishes in the Wesley UMC garden.

“Our pantry clients often request to have more produce, but we never know whether we’re going to have enough. I kept thinking how nice it would be to grow our own food right next door so we could supplement our supply with homegrown vegetables,” Katie remembers.

But Katie was also worried about having enough volunteers to sustain the project. Volunteers are essential to the pantry’s operation and she was concerned that recruiting people to help weed and water the garden might take away from people’s availability to volunteer at the pantry.

Happily, a local PhD horticulturalist had a solution!

Ross Wagstaff, who regularly volunteers at the Wesley Food Pantry and is a member of Champaign's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, heard about the food pantry’s interest in a garden. Back in February, he proposed an inventive garden design for the church to use that he had developed as part of his dissertation.

Volunteers set up the innovative garden at Wesley UMC in Urbana.
Volunteers set up the innovative garden.

Growing plants in the giant fabric pots reduces weeds, provides ideal soil conditions, and makes it more ergonomic for volunteers to pull the weeds that grow and harvest veggies. The garden has an automatic drip irrigation system that conserves water and can be automatically timed to provide moisture as the plants need it. This above-ground garden also extends the growing season by 3 to 4 weeks, creating an even more bountiful harvest for the pantry.

Wesley UMC has an active Green Team, and the project was immediately embraced by the church. Everyone was so enthusiastic that the project was implemented just two months after being suggested.

On a Saturday afternoon in early April, over 20 volunteers from Wesley UMC, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of Champaign, and Faith in Place gathered to prepare and plant the garden.

Watch volunteers speedily fill the fabric pots with compost and soil in the time-lapse video below!

Now, at the beginning of June, the pantry has already harvested 19 pounds of radish, 15 pounds of lettuce, 15 pounds or arugula, 10 pounds of kale and collards, and 10 pounds of spinach.

In addition to the health benefits the fresh produce provides to pantry clients, the garden also offers educational opportunities for the preschool and Sunday School students at the church to learn about where their food comes from. By growing organic produce that only has to travel a few yards to consumers, the church reduces its environmental impact and puts its property to use to benefit the community.

Katie is eager to see other Houses of Worship start similar gardens. “I hope that this garden will serve as a model for other churches and organizations that have space available to encourage them to pursue a similar project,” she expressed.

If you would like to start a vegetable garden with Dr. Wagstaff’s innovative design, click here to download the PDF garden plans he has graciously shared.

Photos and videos courtesy of Tim Hartin and Katie Thomas.

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