by Evan Sernoffsky
The smell of manure fills the air behind St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Coburg Road in Eugene. The two and a half acres of fruits and vegetables that are reaching their peak are a sight to behold.
Merry Bradley, coordinator for FOOD for Lane County GrassRoots Garden, acts as stage manager to the large group volunteers who are eager to get their hands dirty and their clothes soiled. “Hey Ken, can I put you to work? I need some strong people to carry these sheets of garlic,” she asks to one of today’s hands. Bradley is constantly on the move. She walks through the 110 beds of onions, carrots, squash, and more than 30 other vegetables, commanding her troops with the confidence of a true leader. “We make it up as we go—stay in the moment,” she says while quickly stepping over a bed of onions. Bradley is running the show, and all the volunteers here look up to her—some with deep admiration.
The GrassRoots Garden was established in 1991 as a partnership between FOOD for Lane County, St Thomas Episcopal Church, and Lane County Master Gardeners. The garden produces 50 to 60 thousand pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each year that are distributed through FOOD for Land County’s more than 100 partner agencies.
Today, Thursday July 29, students from Mobility International are volunteering at the garden. “We have students from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Serbia. Part of their exchange program is community service,” says Teresa Koch, program assistant in the exchanges division for Mobility International. “These are all students with disabilities, and we feel this is a wonderful opportunity for them to come to the GrassRoots Garden,” Koch says.
While many of the student volunteers from Mobility International may be limited physically, some in wheelchairs, they work as hard as many of the master gardeners. “They have gone through a truck load of manure, cleared a bed of cabbage—almost done with the other, put down amendments and spaded it in, prepped the garlic, and it’s only been one hour,” Bradley, short of breath, points out. “We have been hustling to keep up with them.”
“Last year there were 22 thousand volunteer hours,” says Lynn Negus, the Adopt-A-Plot Coordinator for the GrassRoots Garden. “We keep statistics, when you come you are supposed to sign in because we get credit for grants.”
Negus is a one of a few master gardeners who works for the GrassRoots Garden. “I am a retired pediatrician, and adolescent and child psychiatrist,” she says. “When I retired here in 2000, I needed to learn how to manage five acres of my property, so I became a master gardener.” Working at the garden, she was able to fulfill her volunteer requirements to receive master gardener status. She now has her roots firmly embedded in the garden and works diligently to generate donation money from the community.
The GrassRoots Garden is committed to making Lane County a great place for all people. One of the main purposes of the garden is to grow food for the hungry. “Oregon is not a wealthy state. FOOD for Lane County needs gardens like this. They are a wonderful distributor to the community and they need food,” Negus says. According to her just because the food is free does not mean that it should be low quality. “A lot of the foodstuffs in the community are packaged goods. Here you have fresh, organically grown produce,” she says.
Tending to the garden beds are not the only way volunteers donate time to the garden. “All of the buildings that you see here were built and designed by retired engineers that come to the garden,” Negus says while pointing to a cob oven and stone fountain that were recently erected by a local mason.
The GrassRoots Garden is all about teaching the community. They have tasting tours for kids and make fresh pizzas in their cob oven. “A lot of the food kids see these days is in cellophane, we think it’s important to show them where their food comes from,” Negus says.
Part of the teaching process is through example. By providing a template for community members to work from, people who visit the garden can emulate what they learn here in their own backyard. “What you are seeing now is a garden that is totally self sustaining. We do trench composting. Leaves are put in and they become leaf mulch. We use dairy wash to put a layer of manure on top, spade them in and plant. Each bed that is here can produce maybe two or three crops each year,” says Negus as she drives a shovel into the ground. “We teach all of this in our earth friendly gardening classes. We have compost seminars on Saturdays in the fall where anyone can come.”
Part of the recipe for the garden’s success is the community bonds that are forged. People of all ages, backgrounds and abilities come to help out. When volunteers put on their work clothes and gear up for a day in the dirt, they form a common bond with the people around them. “There are a lot of young people here from high school. It’s inter-generational. It’s amazing to me how much young people do like to talk to old people. They can learn and we learn and they keep us young,” Negas says while smiling.
Mildred Wilson is the garden’s oldest volunteer at 91-years-young. She sits and sorts garlic at a picnic table in the center of the garden. Pushing a wheel barrow and shoveling compost are activities that she leaves to the younger gardeners. “In the summer I volunteer here just maybe once or twice a week if I can. If they have something I can do because it’s limited what I can do,” she says. “I just think this kind of activity is the hope of the world. I meet so many interesting people of all kinds of education and from so many different places.”
As the warm summer day progressively gets hotter, the students from Mobility International are ready for a break. They sit on a stone planter and take a few minutes to enjoy fresh watermelon before returning to work. There is a relaxed sense of satisfaction that permeates the air, and few speak as everyone on break looks around at the sublime environment.
Merry Bradley passes out more snacks before checking on workers on the other side of the two and a half acres. She confidently trudges through the soil taking long strides while digging her boots into the dirt. The years she has dedicated to the GrassRoots Garden shows in every fruit and vegetable. The summer yield is already underway with giant onions and garlic going out to FOOD for Lane County. The fall will bring even more food for hungry families and with every season volunteers are standing by ready to give back to their community.