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The State Street Community Garden, located at the corner of East State and North Smiley Streets in O’Fallon, is a beautiful example of how healthy living and healthy eating can benefit an entire community.
One mild summer morning in July, two members of the O’Fallon Garden Club took us on a tour of the State Street Community Garden. Bob Winkler and Sterling Garnto are both Master Gardeners who regularly volunteer at the garden.
The garden exists because of collaboration between the O’Fallon Garden Club, the City of O’Fallon, O’Fallon Parks and Recreation, and the University of Illinois Extension Services.
“This used to be a trailer lot,” says Sterling. “About three years ago, the O’Fallon Garden Club had the opportunity to renovate it all. O’Fallon Parks and Recreation brought in the soil, compost, mulch, and we provided the labor to put all this in and did the planting. We put in all the trees. Wood chips were donated to us.”
Although the City of O’Fallon owns the garden, O’Fallon Parks and Recreation and the O’Fallon Garden Club maintain it. They count 15-20 Master Gardeners among their members. After going through educational training, Master Gardeners are required to volunteer 30 hours each year to maintain their certification by the University of Illinois Extension Services, and working in the garden helps them to meet that requirement.
O’Fallon Parks and Recreation leases empty garden plots for $20 a growing season. The garden even has raised, handicapped-accessible garden plots. All of the available plots were leased for the 2013 growing season.
Water is provided on-site, and gardeners do their own weeding. It takes about five volunteers every day to do the weeding, planting and watering. A message board, built by Bob and other members of the O’Fallon Garden Club last winter, allows the gardeners to easily communicate with each other.
In addition to the tidy rows of plots, there are other spaces dedicated to growing: a garden entrance, a bench surrounded by a butterfly garden where visitors can sit and enjoy the surroundings, a wagon filled with colorful flowers, a border of sunflowers and marigolds that lines the garden plots.
“We do organic gardening as much as possible,” Bob explained, “but we do use some chemicals. We use integrated pest management, which means to find out what the problem is before you treat it and then treat it as minimally as possible. We use as few chemicals as possible.”
When asked about the garden’s biggest challenges, Bob and Sterling didn’t have to think too hard.
“Mother Nature is always the biggest challenge,” Bob said. “Last year was the drought, this year was the rain.”
Sterling chimes in. “For example, this week it’s dry and to water around the flowers takes 2 hours. We need to do it at least three times a week to get an inch of water on the ground. Getting the weeds out also takes time.”
And like many community groups, the O’Fallon Garden Club has a small budget and tries to make do with what they have. That hasn’t slowed down Bob and Sterling, however. “Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a problem, it’s just a challenge,” says Bob.
Despite the challenges, both Bob and Sterling are pleased with the garden’s second growing season and are already anticipating next year’s garden. “Perennial plants sit there the first year, grow a little bit the second year, explode the third year,” Sterling comments.
An important part of the mission of the State Street Community Garden is to donate part of every harvest to the O’Fallon Community Food Pantry. The food pantry provides food to residents of the 62269 ZIP code, which includes both O’Fallon and Shiloh.
Fresh produce is expensive. Many people, especially those who rely on food pantries for their groceries, don’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables because they cannot afford them. Donations of produce from the State Street Community Garden help to ensure that everyone in the community has access to homegrown fruits and vegetables.
The O’Fallon Garden Club has plots dedicated to growing food for the Food Pantry, and also asks that individual plots donate 10% of their harvest. They make deliveries twice a week. Last year, they donated just over 2,000 lbs of produce!
There’s one thing that Bob and Sterling want to emphasize: This is the community’s garden.
Bob smiles when he says, “This is O’Fallon’s garden. It’s a place for people to come and enjoy what’s been done here. There’s a nice place down in the shade for people to sit and watch the flowers grow, watch the bees interact with the flowers. Bring your kids down and let them see.” There’s even a picnic table in the shade for visitors to use.
“We encourage people to come out and walk through and look at it, ask questions,” agrees Sterling. “A lot of us are master gardeners. When I’m walking through the flower garden, people will ask me questions: ‘What flower is that? I’ve got a garden at home, what should I plant? They ask about bugs, that type of thing. We give advice.’” They also educate kids’ groups about gardening.
They invite everyone in the community to help them take care of the garden, or just come out and enjoy it. For Bob and Sterling, the State Street Community Garden gives them a chance to give back to their community.
Bob shared that he retired about a year and a half ago and wanted to raise vegetables for the food pantry. “The O’Fallon Garden Club gave me that opportunity, and gives nutritious food where it’s needed. We raise awareness that people here are doing something to make this spot a little brighter.”
It’s easy to see that they’re proud of the comments they get from visitors and passersby. “People in the community appreciate the garden, and they tell us,” Sterling says.
But people aren’t the only ones who appreciate the garden. Visitors to the garden can’t miss the bees buzzing through the flower gardens and the birds that live in the staked birdhouses throughout the garden. If you look closely, you may even see the resident groundhog. “We also have rabbits but they’re not welcome!” says Sterling.
The O’Fallon Garden Club invites anyone who’s interested to become a member. About half of their members are retired, and one-third are Master Gardeners. There are younger members as well. The Landscape Committee, which maintains the State Street Garden, also maintains parts of the Family Sports Park and the O’Fallon roundabouts. They meet once a month and usually have a guest speaker who talks about gardening topics.
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