RPS invited residents to pick a plot and garden

Community Gardens to grow in two locations

by BETH ALTENA

If you don’t have a spot for a plot on your lot, your site isn’t sunny or you just have a bad case of black thumb, Rockford Public Schools (RPS) has just the fix. RPS unveiled last week plans for two community gardens, open to individuals, businesses or groups, complete with help from multiple master gardeners.

“Apparently great minds think alike,” said Lisa Jacobs, director of RPS Community Services. A local restaurant sous chef, a group of environmentally minded middle school students and RPS staff all began thinking of the possibilities of a community garden and how one organized by the school might happen. Michael Farrell, sous chef at Reds on the River, approached RPS to talk about starting such an endeavor and found out the school was already putting together a tentative proposal for a community garden system. That was a year ago, and plans have blossomed into a new way for the community to partner with the schools and grow their own flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs.

“We are so out-of-our minds excited,” said Meredith Gremel, of Gremel Communications, who is helping organize the gardens along with Jacobs.

A kick-off meeting was held Tuesday, Feb. 15 at the Rockford Freshman Center, and the public turnout showed the strong interest in sharing ground for growing at two locations. The Community Gardens are planned for the administration building at 330 North Main Street in downtown Rockford and East Rockford Middle School at 8615 9 Mile Road.

Students at East Rockford Middle School (ERMS) participate in Earthkeepers, a magnet focused on environmental and nature studies (see related story, page 8). As they used nature-related ideas to learn language arts, math, science, social studies and more, the idea of creating a garden on the property of the school came up. Principal Mike Ramm saw the possibilities.

“Earthkeepers is about getting your hands dirty while learning,” Ramm said. “That gave ERMS the idea of a garden.” He said the possibilities of skills needed in gardening, architectural and structural, healthy living and foods, math and budgeting, all can be used in planning and growing a garden. According to Ramm, one extremely enthusiastic student, John Wiley, really pushed for the idea.

Melissa Beeg stands with Community Gardens organizer Meredith Gremel. Beeg was one of the first residents to sign up for her own plot in the Rockford Public Schools Community Gardens at the administration building and East Rockford Middle School. Beeg said she loves to garden, but lives in a shady house out in the woods. She signed up for a six-by-twelve-foot plot.

“You are probably wondering why we will have two locations,” Jacobs said. She explained how Ramm and Farrell both came to Superintendent Dr. Michael Shibler about the same time a year ago with the idea of a school-organized garden. Both proposals were welcomed with enthusiasm. “We realized early on we would need help from experts,” Jacobs told the crowd of interested students and residents. Among the crowd were a half-dozen master gardeners with ties to the community and willing to help.

Farrell said he came up with the idea while overlooking the fields around Meadow Ridge Elementary School, which was part of his grandfather’s original nearly 400-acre property from between Blakely and Courtland and Nine and Ten Mile roads. Farrell said he is now living in the farmhouse his grandparents built and where he used to visit as a child. Norman Wood, his grandfather, sold off his property over the years and made a deal with RPS when Meadow Ridge was planned. Those who drive by may notice the road to the elementary, Woods Drive, is named in honor of Norman.

Jacobs said the gardeners plan learning sessions, question-and-answer times, perhaps a community garden blog as a way to help gardeners be successful. The plots at the administration building will come in two sizes: six feet by 12 feet with an annual cost of $25 and six by 25 feet with an annual cost of $45. The garden will be fenced in, have a central access road, have water available and there will be handicap-accessible lots. The organizers used a Lowell community garden as a guide while planning. Compost will be available and eventually all plots will be raised.

Plots will be assigned, in part, by the plants gardeners intend to put in and to keep organic gardeners far from those who may use chemicals. Weed killers are not allowed. The master gardeners will stress organic solutions for problems such as pests. Other topics to be addressed by master gardeners include soil preparation, composting, planning, how to grow vertically, when and where to thin and prune, canning and other methods of preservation, harvesting, and end-of-season care.

Gremel said she hopes groups such as church youth groups, businesses or clubs will rent a plot and use the garden as a team-building tool. She suggests that businesses can take a plot and donate the produce to food pantries. Reds on the River’s Farrell said he believes the restaurant would be interested in helping students use plots as a business and perhaps sell produce at Rockford’s Farm Market. He said Reds might also offer classes to teach ways to prepare the fresh produce or herbs.

“The opportunities here are endless,” said Jacobs. She said the Community Gardens will bring education to the community about gardening, but also the possibilities of organic solutions, of a community-wide group project, being a good steward and neighbor, and bring the community together in a unique way not previously available.

Registration for plots is underway and plots can be reassigned to the original gardener next season if requested. April 24 is the average last frost date and by May 15 gardeners should be preparing their plots. To find out more, visit Rockford Public Schools online at rockfordschools.org, e-mail Jacobs or Nancy Seeley at Community Services at ljacobs@rockfordschools.org or nseeley@rockfordschools.org, or call either at (616) 863-6322. Residents can also visit in person at 350 Main Street from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“This is a great opportunity no matter where you are in the spectrum of gardening,” Jacobs said.

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