The number of community gardens in neighborhoods around Wichita has been growing.
Before the recession, there were only about three or four community gardens. Now, there are well over 20.
Some are part of the outreach services of churches and other nonprofits, some are the fruit of community-minded neighbors. One trend is community gardens on school grounds, such as Coleman Middle School and Earhart Elementary School, said Rebecca McMahon, the horticultural food crops agent with the Sedgwick County Extension Center who works with folks who want to start community gardens.
An urban garden
One of those newer gardens is the Dignity Garden in Delano, an idea Kimberly Sims brought to fruition for the nonprofit organization she co-founded, Let's Rock & Roll & Change the World.
Last year, the garden at 1718 W. Douglas started small, with just a few planter boxes made out of recycled pallets. Earlier this month, Sims and volunteers replaced bushes that had lined a fence behind the organization's building with 10 3x7-foot raised beds. The beds can be adopted by volunteers for free.
At the edge of what looks like a gravel parking lot, it seems an unlikely place to have a garden. But it's a good use of urban space to bring fresh food to an area considered a food desert, with no nearby grocery stores, Sims said.
Sims said she likes that community gardens have been shown to have other benefits.
“It helps build community, lower crime, and helps with mental health,” she said.
She thinks there's even more space to grow community gardens in Wichita. She points to a section of ground between an alleyway and a fence, around the corner from the raised beds: “This is wasted farmland.” Last year, volunteers planted a few perennials that have returned – horseradish, strawberries and chives – but there's room for more.
Spreading the bounty
In a community garden in northwest Wichita, gardeners get an added bonus when using one of the plots available at Northwest Free United Methodist Church, 3722 N. Tyler Road. Four of the 20 20x15-foot garden plots have been planted with perennial crops: asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries and horseradish.
Those who join the garden get one day a week to pick from those plots, said manager Vanessa Crawford.
Only four of the 16 other plots have been rented so far. The rental cost is $35, but it's free to those who qualify for food assistance or want to use the plot to grow food to donate to area food pantries. The rental fee covers the cost of the water and garden tools made available to the gardeners.
Crawford said it's bittersweet that not all the plots get rented, but she doesn't let those unrented plots sit unused. She turns them into harvests for food pantries.
“When I do four plots, I can usually pull about 100 pounds of vegetables a week,” she said.
When her husband was unable to work after heart surgery a few years ago, her family used food pantries. She noticed the lack of fresh produce, she said. She grows things like tomatoes, okra and eggplant to donate.
She uses a technique called “carpet gardening” in the plots where she grows vining plants. She spreads donated carpet from Jabara's Carpet Outlet bottom-side up (with the carpet side against the dirt) and then cuts a hole in the carpet to plant watermelon, cucumbers and cantaloupes to donate.
“The plants just grow over the carpet,” Crawford said. “The fruits don't touch the ground and you don't need to weed.”
One of Wichita's first community gardens is the Hilltop Community Garden in southeast Wichita at 1329 S. Bluffview. It is run by the Dear Neighbor Ministries of the Congregation of St. Joseph. It started in 1997, when the sisters from the nearby convent and the Hilltop neighborhood association decided to take action to clean up a lot that had become a dumping ground, said Forrest Ehmke, from Dear Neighbor.
Now, rather than an eyesore, the lot has become a gathering place for the culturally diverse neighborhood to meet and learn about different gardening techniques and plantings.
“People of many different countries and backgrounds can draw on each other's knowledge and experiences,” Ehmke said.
All of the in-ground and raised garden beds are rented, with returning gardeners getting first preference, Ehmke said.
How to start or find a community garden
Looking for a space to garden? The Sedgwick County Extension Center offers a list of area community gardens. The center can also help individuals or organizations start a garden, as well as provide mentors through its master gardener program.
Find the community garden list at www.sedgwick.k-state.edu/gardening-lawn-care/fruits-vegetables-nuts/commgardlist.html.