Plots are sold-out for third straight year
By BETH ALTENA
Nancy Seeley said the forty raised garden beds out behind the Rockford Public School’s Administration building on N. Main Street are all spoken for, almost all repeat gardeners keeping their plots from last year.
The idea of the garden was brought to the public during a community meeting at Rockford High School where a huge attendance gave organizers the idea that the concept would be well received. Today that is evidenced by the ripening fruits, vegetables and flowers that fill the fenced lot that used to be the site of a ballfield.
East Rockford Middle School also hosts a smaller community garden that was started as part of the building’s Earth Keepers magnet, a very popular program available to students whose curriculum is themed with an environmental tilt. The ERMS 13-plot garden is mostly used by students in the magnet, but does have several rented spots taken by nearby residents.
In downtown Rockford, the community garden is fenced but not locked and gardeners can come and go as their schedule allows. Walkways are covered with mulch to discourage weed growth and multiple hoses allow for easy access for watering.
“Many people don’t have room for a garden or their yards don’t get enough sun,” Seeley said of the popularity of the gardens. She said the price is affordable at $45 per season for a larger plot at 6 by 24 feet and just $25 for a 6 by 12 foot bed.
Gardeners can plant what they want, fruits such as strawberries (a perennial crop), vegetables or flowers and a stroll through the garden is a treat for the senses with a variety of scents, colors and textures.
Rockford Public Schools Community Services Director Lisa Jacobs said the gardeners all get along well and there have been no areas of concern with the program. “That’s what is so amazing. We have had no troubles,” she said. “The security cameras might have something to do with that.”
Lisa said the gardens have had strong support, including from Rockford Ace Hardware’s Pete Kruer, who helped set up the raised beds and provides advice as well as supplies. Denizens of the garden include two rubber wolves, donated by Kruer, who told Jacobs they work like a charm discouraging rabbits and other unwelcome foragers to the plants.
Other supporters include Red’s on the River, Splash Irrigation, Wolverine World Wide and others. Jacobs said the idea actually came from Red’s on the River who proposed the plots, in part, to grow fresh vegetables for the restaurant.
Lisa said the garden includes a basket on the porch of the gardening shed so that gardeners who grow too much can put the produce in to share, but so far they have been pretty happy to take their vegetables home. “They are really loving this fresh, homegrown produce,” she stated.
Garden plants include beans, cucumbers, strawberries, squash of many different types, corn, onions, sunflowers and much more. She said the raised beds are well tended and the gardeners have been very generous of their time, helping tend neighboring plots for those out of town and pitching in at peak times such as planting.
She said the hopes for the garden have come true and even eclipsed expectation. “It’s been all we thought it could be and then some. This is just year three and look out there.”
Every single bed is not only used, but packed to capacity. Lisa said it is fun not only to see what other gardeners are growing and how their plots are doing, but also fun to see people share knowledge. “We have every level of gardener here, from very new beginners to master gardeners,” she stated.
This year the Rockford Lions Club has become involved and built a substantially sized addition to the existing gardens. Lion Larry Lindsley said the project is organized under the LEOs club, a junior group under the Lions. Lindsley said the implementation of the new raised garden bed was paid for 100-percent by the LEOs who held fundraisers to come up with the money.
LEOs, which stands for Leadership, Experience and Opportunity, are young men and women ages 12 to 18. Currently Rockford Lions boasts 140 LEOs associated with the Lions Club and are active in four of the district’s buildings, East Rockford Middle School, North Rockford Middle School, the Freshman Center and the High School. Lindsley said this is the largest group of LEOs in the State of Michigan.
“We recruited advisors to the LEOs from the schools and they became Lions themselves,” Lindsley said of the wildly successful youth service club. The advisors guide the LEOs in their activities, which all benefit the Rockford community.
Lions advising LEOs are Adam Burkholder, Al Reichard, Kelly Amshay, Tom Hosford and Mike Westgate. All are either principals or assistant principals at the participating schools. In addition to funding and working in the garden, the local LEOs step up to exemplify their belief in civic duty. “We try to teach them to be good citizens.”
“They volunteer at God’s Kitchen, they volunteer at senior citizens facilities, they read to senior citizens, they help at Start of Summer,” Lindsley explained. “Everything they do they do to benefit the community.” Another project of the LEOs is the beautification of Pioneer Garden, the grounds of the historic Pioneer Cemetery, visible off Ten Mile (Division) in front of North Rockford Middle School.
Most people don’t know the cemetery is not limited to the few grave stones set in the earthen berm along the sidewalk, but also extends throughout the woods above. Long overgrown and nearly forgotten, the rehabilitation of the burial ground of Rockford’s first settlers came to the attention of Lions in recent years. Visitors are invited to walk the wood-chipped paths and see the stones of people who died over one hundred years ago. Care of the graves is a good lesson in service.
Lindsley said the Rockford LEOs is a new program, started in February 2012 and it is going strong. The youngsters interact with the parent organization in a variety of projects, such as the Community Garden. Lindsley said many organizations struggle with trying to connect with the next generation and the LEO members are likely to represent the future of Rockford Lions.
Rockford Lions are currently numbered at 78, including Lindsley, who has been a Lion 37 years. The club was chartered in 1954 here in Rockford. “We are the second largest Lion Club in our district,” Lindsley explained. The district is pretty vast, ranging from Lansing west to the water, and from Kalamazoo to Big Rapids.
“All the money raised by Lions (and LEOs) goes back to the community, whether it be in glasses or hearing aids or to donations to the NKCS. There are no administration costs and no one gets paid.”
Lindsley said the group meets the second and fourth Thursday of each month with the exception of July and August (everyone is out of town then) at 6 p.m. at the Rockford Community Cabin starting with a half-hour social time. Dinner and the program begin at 6:30 and meals are either catered in or prepared by Lions. Visitors are always welcome, but must tell a Lion prior to attending.
Meals will not, unfortunately, feature fresh vegetables from the LEOs garden, as all the produce is donated to the needy. Lindsley said the LEOs garden has already offered up crops of radishes, peas and beans and ripening now are squash, tomatoes and other summer favorites. A lesson in wise gardening, all plants, with the exception of tomatoes, were started from seed as the most economical option by far.
The plants grow in raised beds holding 41 yards of dirt brought in by Greenleaf of Comstock Park. Lindsley believes the kids are likely to have their character grow in strength and service just as their garden flourishes in the Michigan summer.