For Gary Bertrand, president of the council in charge of the Rolla Community Garden, there are many reasons to be involved in gardening and in encouraging others to put some seeds in the dirt. The reasons are not always what you would expect . . .
For Gary Bertrand, president of the council in charge of the Rolla Community Garden, there are many reasons to be involved in gardening and in encouraging others to put some seeds in the dirt.
“I like seeing people bring their kids out to work in the soil,” said Bertrand.
So, right there are multiple reasons: promoting a work ethic in children, teaching children to understand nature, finding ways to share family togetherness.
“We’re seeing some of that with a couple of families,” Bertrand said as he stood amongst the plant-filled plots at the Rolla Community Garden behind the city’s recycling center.
All of those are noble reasons. It’s also a way to have some tasty and healthy food for just the price of seeds and some work. So there are some more noble reasons: healthy food, exercise and fresh air.
Combine all of those reasons and you get another noble reason for gardening: “It is one of the ways to get away from multi-generational poverty,” said Bertrand.
So are those the reasons Bertrand volunteered to work on forming the Rolla Community Garden, on mapping out the blocks and plots, on helping to build the soil and improve the drainage, on two meetings a month with the other growers, on helping to install water hoses and spigots, and other assorted chores?
Are those the reasons he is out at the garden every day for at least an hour or two, maybe more?
Well, sure, but there’s another reason he does community garden work.
“I just like to be out here,” he said, standing in front of the plots where he grows tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, beans and okra.
So there you go, the real reason Gary Bertrand, or another other gardener, for that matter, puts up with the weeds and bugs, the lack of rain and heat of the sun to grow a garden. It’s the pure joy of watching, and nurturing the plants as they sprout from seeds, grow and mature and then bear produce for harvest.
Bertrand and the garden’s vice president, Charles Studyven, both Rolla residents, both spend a lot of time at the garden because they enjoy it.
The garden has been here since 2012 when Faith Ann Barnes, with the help of many people from The Community Partnership, began putting together the organization needed to qualify for start-up grants and donations.
“They set up the rules,” Bertrand said. “And the property is owned by the city, and we get to use it thanks to much help from Brady Wilson (city environmental services director) and Steve Hargis (public works director).
“We do know that if the city decides they want the land, we’d have to move,” said Bertrand, adding that he is hoping that doesn‘t happen any time soon. There was an easement problem, but that seems to have been addressed.
The garden organizers consulted with a local gardening group about preparations for growing. That gardening group submitted a plan that recommended a three-year plan for boosting the soil before planting one seed.
But Bertrand said the grants required immediate use, not a three-year delay. Besides, what gardener wants to wait three years before planting even a single seed? Eager to get to work, the garden organizers brought in loads of topsoil and started growing, building the soil as they went. The garden is broken into 16 blocks with each block having four 10-foot by 15-foot planting blocks.
The rental charge is $10 per plot for the season, and people can have up to four plots. Well, that’s after they’ve gardened a year. “They are limited to two plots the first year,” Bertrand said. That’s to assure the council and the gardeners themselves, in some cases, that they understand the joyful work of gardening.
“You can’t plant your seeds and come back in two months to harvest your vegetables,“ Bertrand said.
There is a spectrum of gardeners
“There are some old-timers like me and Charlie, and others are here for their first season,” Bertrand said. “I‘m probably the oldest one out here,” he added. “No ‘probably‘ about it,” said Studyven.
Some are retired, like Bertrand, retired from the chemistry department at the university, and Studyven, retired from the Forest Service.
Some are college students.
There are lots of ideas about gardening going on at the garden, and there are various solutions to problems.
For instance, drainage is a problem, such that a block of plots in the middle of the garden is unusable. Bertrand plants it over with various grasses, but he has also been working on digging a trench to try to help drain it. If the garden council ever gets enough money, he’d like to see some drainage pipe laid to help drain the whole garden.
Studyven, on the other hand, is taking a different approach. His four plots are poorly drained, so he has turned to container gardening by using several handmade auto-waterers. He obtained some plastic drums from a local business, cleaned then out thoroughly and then cut the tops off them.
He cuts the tops and a sufficient amount of the side that he can insert it in the bottom part of the plastic barrel. That gives a raised bottom to the barrel with an open space that, when a hole is drilled and a PVC pipe is inserted, can become a water reservoir. With the use of micro-fiber cloth strips inserted through small holes drilled in the raised floor, water will wick from the reservoir into the soil.
Studyven fills the water through the PVC pipe and that gives the plant even and consistent watering from the reservoir. It’s the same concept used in commercially available planters such as the Earth Box, another solution used by other growers.
Handmade auto-waterers can also be made with other large containers, slipping one inside the other. That leaves a nice reservoir in the bottom. Holes for PVC and micro-fiber strips can also be drilled in the inserted container; it makes a nice container garden.
Bertrand said the auto-waterers take away the need to water every day, although frequent watering is still needed, of course, in the heat of summer. Plus, the barrels and other taller containers raise the growing bed area up high enough that people who have trouble bending, and even those in wheelchairs, can reach in and pull weeds.
“They are just the perfect height for someone in a wheelchair,” Bertrand said, and that’s good because he wants to get more people in wheelchairs involved in container gardening. “I would like to get more handicapped people out here.”
Continuing a tour of the garden, Bertrand notes that soil-building continues in various ways. One of them is with compost.
“The university supports us with plenty of leaf mold,” he said. That’s rotting oak leaves, which he said do not supply much nitrogen, but they as good composting material.
Another block with exceedingly healthy-looking plants belongs to a woman from Thailand, whose husband is in the military and stationed here.
“She really introduced us to some new crops,” he said. “She bought ginger at the store and stuck it in the ground. It grew.”
Pointing to other plants, he said, “All that is luffa sponges. It’s actually an edible gourd, and you can eat it when it is young, but then as it ages and hardens, the inside becomes inedible but useful as a sponge.”
With all the different plants growing and the different people growing them, there are lots of ideas about how to prepare the vegetables as foods.
“There’s lots of trading, recipes and seeds,” he said. “I’m from south Louisiana, so I grow a lot of okra.” Some people weren’t familiar with all the ways to prepare okra, and he has shared that information with several.
Many of the seeds come from rareseeds.com, the Baker Creek Seed Co., an heirloom seed company in Marshfield, and some growers save seed in sufficient quantities to share as well as plant the next year.
Bertrand said there are 18 different holdings of blocks and plots, but some are worked by two or three people.
“We probably have 20-22 people out here,“ he said.
All are welcome to attend and contribute ideas to council meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of each month during the growing season
There are 10 plots not claimed yet, so there is room for people to put in a fall garden. There is a tiller available.
“We have two sheds and plenty of hand tools,” Bertrand said.
There’s a compost pile and a barrel composter.
We do composting, mostly of the weeds pulled,“ he said. “We get about a cubic yard of compost every year.“
The council schedules work days for all the growers able to get together and work on common tasks for the garden.
The council donates some produce to Salvation Army and GRACE. There is one block surrounded by a commercial raised bed system that was donated; several growers, Studyven and Bertrand included, work that bed and donate the produce.
And there’s room for research and experimentation.
“Here’s Charlie’s hugelkultur,” Bertrand said. That’s a technique Studyven picked up in German. It’s a pile of logs covered with dirt, into which a crop is planted. “He planted sweet potatoes,” Bertrand said. “They’re doing all right,” he said of the green-covered mound.
Passing by one block that was covered with cardboard, except for the growing plants, Bertrand said of the grower, “She hates to weed.”
So, obviously, people don’t find all aspects of gardening to be pure enjoyment.