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'Caring & Sharing:' Employees co-op on gardening

Zander Baker and Zach Harris are among the many volunteers who help maintain the "Caring & Sharing Garden" outside the Becker County Human Services Building in Detroit Lakes.

Have you ever wanted to have a vegetable garden of your very own -- but lacked the space in which to plant it?

According to Tracy Baker, nutrition education assistant for the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Becker County, having a garden of your own doesn't require a lot of space.

In fact, she and other Becker County employees have proved that point this summer, by planting a "Caring & Sharing Garden" in the flower boxes outside the Human Services Building in Detroit Lakes. (There is also a small wagon parked next to the flower boxes, containing a few more vegetable varieties.)

The garden is planted with everything from peas and carrots to tomatoes and peppers. There's even some eggplant in there, Baker said.

Each department that contributes to the garden has decorated its own plastic bottle, which is filled with water and attached to a watering spike. The spikes are used to keep the garden well moistened on the weekends, Baker explained, when there isn't anyone around to do the watering.

Employees and clients at the Human Services building also help with weeding and maintenance of the garden. It's actually become something of a gathering spot for them, said Ronda Stock, Community Health supervisor, who has been involved with the project from the beginning.

"We've all embraced this project -- that's what's made it so much fun," Stock added, noting that previous efforts to grow marigolds and other flower varieties in the flower boxes had met with something less than success.

"But the vegetables have flourished," she said, adding, "I'm waiting for that first cherry tomato (to ripen)."

"I'm excited for the sweet peas," Baker added. "I've never grown them before."

The garden at the Human Services building, Baker said, is a collaboration involving employees from a variety of county departments, who have all contributed funds for plants, seeds and other supplies -- and many have also helped to maintain the garden itself.

The garden at the Human Services building is just the beginning, however -- the beginning of what Baker and Stock hope will be a countywide trend toward families growing their own food.

Baker said her office is combining its efforts with the Becker County Community Health and Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program to encourage families to grow a garden of their own.

"I've had a lot of calls from people wanting information on gardening and trying to stretch their food dollars," Baker explained.

Stock said the project also fits in really well with the Statewide Health Improvement Plan (SHIP). Gov. Pawlenty recently allotted $47 million to public health agencies across the state, Stock explained, to collaborate with businesses, schools, health care facilities and communities, on projects that focus on obesity and tobacco prevention.

It also fits in well with WIC's new guidelines, stressing fresh fruits, vegetables and making better food choices, Stock added.

But the impetus for the project really came from Frazee Mayor Hank Ludtke, Baker said.

Ludtke contacted her this past spring about starting a community garden at his home in Frazee. Three families now share in that garden, she added -- and two of them had no prior gardening experience.

That was the first garden, but it wasn't the last. Besides the county's garden, there are now four others, known as "pizza gardens."

Baker said she was inspired by a 4-H project that involved constructing a garden planted with vegetables that are used in the making of a pizza. The idea was to make vegetables and fruits more appetizing to children by planting them in the shape of a pizza -- traditionally a favorite food for the young.

After several brainstorming sessions with Stock and (WIC program representative) Renee Kluenenberg, Baker came upon a child's plastic wading pool one day, and "thought it would make a great container for a pizza garden."

Once the wading pool has been filled with dirt, each variety of vegetable is planted in a wedge, creating the appearance of a pizza.

"I have four pizza gardens going right now in this community," Baker said. "One at Divine House, and three at the Boys & Girls Club."

Eventually, Baker said, she hopes to be able to put in a community garden near the Becker County Food Pantry, in which families using the Pantry can grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Anyone who is interested in making a "pizza garden" of their own is asked to call Tracy Baker at the Becker County Extension Office, 218-846-7328.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454