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Organic produce isn’t just for the rich

A garden is a hub of sights, scents and sounds that all seem to shout “Life!” to any visitor who’ll pay attention. The Community Pantry’s Hope Garden is answering the call with a seed-starting party and open house from 1 to 3 pm March 26.

“This is something we are kicking off this year. We got a big donation of seeds from Home Depot and really wanted to provide a space to use those and also try to connect people with the garden boxes,” Meredith Lorencz, programs coordinator at The Community Pantry said.

Participants will learn the proper way to start plants from seed and care for them. Visiting master gardeners will join resident Master Gardener Sherrie McDargh and assistant gardener Duane Skeet for the afternoon to answer questions and give advice to home gardeners of all ages and abilities.

“For me it’s gratifying to teach people about gardening,” McDargh said. “They get all happy and surprised.”

Lorencz and her staff work to make fresh produce and gardening accessible and affordable to everyone. Home gardeners can drop in to buy or swap seeds and get advice. Those who don’t have a garden space at home can rent a 4-foot by 8-foot planter box for the season, which runs April through October.

The $75 fee includes rich soil, water, seeds and use of tools, and is discounted to just $40 for military veterans.

“If you go on vacation, all you have to do is let us know and we’ll tend to it while you’re away,” McDargh said.

Any business, group or person may sponsor a box for someone less fortunate, and the box will promote the donor’s name for the season.

That can be a blessing for families that rely on public assistance. Little-known fact: It’s not just the produce that’s eligible for EBT, SNAP and Double Up Food Bucks purchases. Vegetable, herb and fruit seeds also qualify, whether grown at the garden or at home.

Budget stretching inspired Larissa Ben to take on a planter box last season to help provide healthier food for herself and her children.

“I have space at home, but I wanted to get the hang of planting and what to plant and how it works,” she said.

Last year she grew zucchini, onions, peppers, cherry and large tomatoes, spinach, kale and carrots. She had so many tomatoes she canned jars of salsa and made sun-dried tomatoes for snacks and pasta dishes. She’s continued through the winter and is still growing garlic, onions and cilantro.

And there was an unexpected bonus: “My daughter grew a giant jack-o-lantern there. We took it to the Prewitt fair, and she won first place,” Ben said. “She was excited, she was happy and now she wants to grow a couple more pumpkins.”

Home gardeners love the garden’s environment and having everything they need in one place. Hope Garden makes compost all year to enrich the soil, and collects rainwater for each season in eight 2,500-gallon barrels.

Cynthia Chavez and her brother started planter boxes late last year because of dead dirt in the space they had at home. Also, at Hope Garden a dozen of the 72 raised beds are built higher and have wider spaces between so disabled gardeners like her brother have access.

“We had a garden at my dad’s trailer but the soil wasn’t right. Our produce was real small and the water bill was real expensive,” she said. They started late but were still able to grow a few tomatoes, squash and sunflowers. This year she’s looking forward to growing Indian corn and strawberries as well.

“I thought I knew a lot but I have learned a lot…they give you a lot of tips like how to prune the tomatoes, which plants are weeds and which ones aren’t,” she said.

Gardening has also expanded her social network. “A lot of the community members see each other around town,” she said. “We all know each other and talk about whether you’re going to get another box. It’s nice to meet people with the same interests as you.”

As an extension of the Community Pantry, the Hope Garden is focused on food. Much of the staff- and volunteer-grown bounty goes into food boxes for pantry distribution, but in summer there’s often surplus that’s offered for sale to the public. Some is also sold to La Montanita co-op, Lorencz said, with the proceeds from all sales going back to the garden and pantry.

As if the farming, hoop greenhouses, planter beds, composting, gardening seminars, seed swap and mini-orchard weren’t enough, Hope Garden has a small produce stand inside the pantry year round. When the summer harvest comes in, its New Mexico-certified farmers market opens. Although the produce from the garden is not certified organic, that’s a formality. It is grown to the same standards.

Together it serves the mission of getting fresh, healthy food onto as many Gallup tables as possible, Lorencz said. “We realize how difficult it is to garden in this climate and we want to get those tools to our community.”

The Community Pantry and Hope Garden are at 1130 Hassler Valley Rd. in Gallup, open Monday-Friday, 7 am to 4 pm. To rent or sponsor a planter box or for more information, call (505) 726-8068 or see https://thecommunitypantry.org/hope-garden/.

By Holly J. Wagner
Sun Correspondent