Bringing the Garden to the Neighbors

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Members of Heritage Christian Reformed Church in Byron Center, Mich., are digging into plans for a third and expanded gardening season. But unlike many churches’ community gardens, Heritage plants their garden at a nearby mobile home park where the neighbors are.

Members of Heritage CRC in Byron Center volunteer in the garden.

“It’s not just about growing vegetables. We’re doing things together,” said Robert Bolt, pastor at the church.

Last year Heritage volunteers turned an area of tangled brush into an irrigated garden of melons, strawberries, a pumpkin patch, and, of course, tomatoes. Park residents could choose to tend a row of their own or work in a communal spot with church members, some of whom offered expertise from their farming backgrounds.

Project coordinator Robert Vlasblom, 67, said initially some church members got on board with rakes and shovels. As more people heard about the garden plot, tractor and equipment owners showed up. While the garden flourished, so did relationships.

“It built friendships with the church and the (mobile home) community,” said Scott White, who managed the park during garden launching. “It’s also a stepping ground for children who have no idea how to garden.”

White helped distribute vegetables and made salsa from tomatoes to give away. Residents also could harvest whatever they wanted, while excess produce went to the local food pantry.

Vlasblom said the labor results were gratifying. “When the watermelons came in it was fun to see the smiles on kids’ faces.” Bouquets of flowers grown from plants donated by a nursery added extra flourish. Two cookouts with food donated by a meat company owner helped volunteers and residents mingle.

Bolt sees more good coming from this year’s garden, hoping that some residents will be able to gain income by selling their produce. He’s also looking at the garden as a meeting place for children and their mentors in Kids Hope USA to keep up relationships when school is out.

“It’s a good place to bring kids to give them something to do,” Bolt said.

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