By Louis Wyatt
HUNTERTOWN — Residents will soon have another reason to get out and enjoy the sunshine come spring — while making a positive impact on the community.
Huntertown United Methodist Church is in the process of launching a community garden at its Lifehouse campus, encouraging everyone to join the fun while opening the door to fresh produce for those in need.
“I guess my thoughts on getting involved with community gardening kind of started with too many green beans,” laughed Jared Foote, the mastermind behind Lifehouse’s new venture.
Growing up outside of Churubusco, Foote inherited his green thumb from his parents and grandparents. As a family, they did a lot of canning and food preservation, he said.
Moving to the area in 2015, Foote started a personal garden at his home, hoping to pass the practice on to his own children. One year after planting too many green beans, Foote and his wife canned about 90 quarts before admitting they simply didn’t need anymore. Offering them to friends and trying to locate food pantries that would take them off his hands, Foote found it more difficult than expected to simply get rid of perfectly good produce.
Looking for the perfect marriage between his desire to share his produce and gardening alongside like-minded people, Foote happened upon the world of community gardening.
“I like having a garden at home and trying to get friends to help, and I wished there was a spot around where I could garden with other people who enjoy gardening, and if I’m out of town or can’t pick the produce, somebody else could benefit from it,” he said. “It was something I hadn’t heard of before but that kind of fit.”
Seeking an outlet for the venture, Foote decided to partner up with his church.
The first people Foote had in mind for the project were gardeners who simply don’t have a space to enjoy the practice.
“If you grew up in a rural area and you move to a housing addition, you might have an HOA rule that says you can’t have a garden, or maybe it’s a shaded lot or maybe when they built the foundation they destroyed the topsoil,” he said. “So, [we want] to provide a space for people who want it, as well people who maybe have an interest in gardening but don’t know how.”
For people new to gardening, Foote and the Lifehouse ministries see a community garden as the perfect opportunity for education.
“Most people who garden are pretty gracious with their time and talking about ideas of the best way to do this or that, so there’s opportunities to learn,” Foote said, adding that he would like to implement events throughout the year in which participants can learn how to make their own strawberry jam or pico de gallo, or even make and can their own salsa.
In addition to imparting new skills, he hopes community gardening could be a gateway to simply teaching people the importance of eating fresh produce.
“Purdue has classes for gardening through preservation and food preparation, so I’ve had a conversation with the Extension Office and we’re trying to develop some curriculum so we can host it at Lifehouse,” Foote said.
While a significant portion of Allen County’s population remains food insecure, Foote believes community gardening could be a way to cut down on that reality — by making garden-grown produce available to those that need it most. It could also be the spark that ignites a movement to eliminate northeast Indiana’s billion-and-a-half-dollar trade deficit on agriculture.
“It doesn’t really make sense,” Foote said. “You see farm ground everywhere, but we’re growing corn and soybeans and we’re importing what we eat.”
When Huntertown United Methodist officially opens the doors to its newly acquired Forest Park campus in Fort Wayne, the affects of the community garden will hopefully take on a wider audience.
“Traditionally, the rural area supported the urban area with agriculture,” Foote said. “We also have Master Gardeners that attend our church. We have a number of people who are interested in just growing food for donation, so as we take on Forest Park, there’s the ability for us to grow food at our garden for the food pantry there.”
Foote said he would also like to eventually partner with the Community Harvest Food Bank to not only help fund the Huntertown garden’s growth but to assist with the organization’s work.
He also hopes Huntertown’s garden will lend some momentum to a bigger region-wide initiative through his nonprofit, Abel’s Offering, with which he seeks to improve food security in northeast Indiana by helping people get in touch with local gardens available to them, as well as giving gardeners a place to donate produce that would otherwise go to waste.
The Lifehouse garden will eventually be a combination of 60, 4-by-8-foot raised beds and 21, 10-by-20-foot plots. The church also plans to implement a rain barrel system that can provide running water to onsite spigots.
To kick-start the project, Lifehouse received about 60 yards of garden soil from Buesching’s Peat Moss and Mulch in Fort Wayne. Foote also secured mulch from dump sites and about 100 more yards from some of the trees being shredded at Willow Ridge Golf Course, as well as some 100 cubic yards of shredded leaves during the city’s fall collection.
In the hopes that garden space will be in high demand, the church has set the site up in a way that allows for future expansion to the east. Either way, certain sections of the garden will be dedicated from the start solely to hunger relief.
“It can go either way,” Foote said. “We could be swamped year one and have a waiting list, or there could be a number of open spots. We don’t really know, so we’re kind of waiting to determine how big the hunger relief sections will be, but that will be manned by volunteers growing produce specifically for our food pantry, the Forest Park food pantry and working with Community Harvest and some other potential groups. We’re going to have tomatoes and cucumbers and onions and carrots and those things in those spots, but we’re also going to have collard greens and kale and okra, which are things that aren’t necessarily a popular item around here but that are very popular at Community Harvest.”
The church also plans to implement a flag system, so community members can help their fellow gardeners take care of their plots. For example, if someone were to go out of town for a week, they might stick a blue flag in their plot to indicate the plants need watering while they’re gone.
“The flags will represent the different needs of the garden. One flag might mean you need help watering or there’s ripe produce to be picked for donation,” Connections Leader Cheryl Degler said.
While the timeline is weather-dependent, Foote said he hopes to have things up and running in early April — or May 1 at the latest. Nevertheless, participants can sign up now.
Garden space will be open to anyone interested, and Foote said all they ask is a $5 donation per spot to help with any future expansion and hunger relief sections.
Anyone interested in reserving garden space can visit lifehousefw.com/serve/community-garden/ to sign up.
Any questions can be directed to Jared Foote at firstname.lastname@example.org or (260) 908-1507.
For more information on Foote’s nonprofit, Abel’s Offering, visit the website at abelsoffering.org.
Lifehouse is located at 1601 W. Cedar Canyon Road.