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Draw more than bees with a community garden

Editor’s Note: We compiled our best stories on Vacation Bible School, service projects, and retreats into one easy reference page. Visit our Plan for Summer landing page for more great ideas.

Gardens produce much more than tomatoes, zucchini and corn. Community gardens foster relationships and produce pride that comes with providing sustenance for others.

A garden offers a great opportunity to nourish the community with both food and care. Stake your claim now. Plan to have a community garden at your church, in your neighborhood or at your members' homes this summer.

A community garden is a great way to involve everyone in the church. (A green thumb is not required.) Environmentally sound, it can invite and unite your neighborhood. No matter where the garden is or who grabs a hoe, everyone shares the garden's bounty.

United Methodist Church of Davis, Calif., created Grace Garden, where they grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers on 5/8 acre at the back of their campus. In 2012 over 1200 pounds of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, green beans and cantaloupes were distributed to hungry people through their partnership with the Davis Korean Baptist Church’s Friday Harvest Food program.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Plot your garden plan.
Invite green thumbs or green-thumb wannabes in your church to lead your community garden effort. Ask them to explore possible locations. Does your church property have an area with proper space and sunlight? Is there a home in the neighborhood with a suitable spot for a garden and a homeowner willing to share it?

Create outgrowth gardens. 
If you do not have a suitable "community" space, ask church members and others to plant for the community at their own homes. Ask your gardening experts to host workshops, sharing tips and possibly plants.

Stake your claim.
Set up the garden. Have your green-thumb group identify what will grow well in the area. Focus on produce, but add a few flowers to the mix. Grab the heavy-lifter volunteers to till the soil. Install fences to protect the garden from unwanted visitors. Have children create and place plant "markers" in the ground. Buy seeds or plants. Children and adults can sow the seeds or put the plants in the ground. The more people involved in the beginning, the more enthusiasm exists for helping the garden flourish until picking time.

Work the land.
Bring together community members to water, weed, feed and thin plants throughout the season. While it helps to have one person lead the activity, he or she should not do all the work. Assign volunteers on a rotating schedule, whether it is a day of the week or a week in the season. Ask church members to take a day or a week. Invite community and church groups to assume volunteer responsibilities. Invite the neighborhood too. Remember, many hands make light work. Create directions for volunteers so even the non-gardeners are comfortable helping.

Reap the harvest.
As growing season progresses, your bounty will be ready in stages. Decide where the produce will go. Will you share the bounty among church members and neighbors? Will the church host a few free-produce nights? Will you host community meals that incorporate the newly grown vegetables and fruits? Will you donate produce to a local homeless shelter or food pantry? Should it be a combination of options? A couple of United Methodist churches in Palmyra, Pa., give produce from their community garden to the local Caring Cupboard to help others.

If you plant flowers, determine if someone should pick and share them with a local health-care facility or homeless shelter. Leaders should make these choices before planting the garden.

Everyone should know what will happen from the beginning. That eliminates debate when the vegetables and flowers are ready.

Spring or summer? Get started.
Your region determines what grows best-and when. Texans can grow vegetables 11 months of the year. Minnesotans have a much shorter growing period. This gardening calendar offers month-by-month guidance from Ed Hume, expert gardener and author. He also lists cold-weather, warm-weather and anytime crops. Cold weather produce includes asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, peas, carrots, beets, spinach, cauliflower and cabbage. Warm weather produce includes tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and peppers. You can plant root vegetables, including potatoes, radishes, parsnips and onions any time during your area's planting season.

Visit a garden center or ask an agricultural extension agent for specific tips and insight into your area. You will find them throughout the country, frequently connected to a nearby university. The American Community Garden Association offers wonderful articles teaching things like how to organize a garden or start a community garden.

Now go and be fruitful!

Darby Jones is the eMarketing Manager at United Methodist Communications.

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