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Garden variety


Gardens aren’t just for the backyard. Companies and organizations are getting their hands in the dirt, too.

Carol Cole-Frowe July 20th, 2011

Gardening humor is in full-flower in this year’s extended triple-digit dog days of summer.

Through hail, wind and heat of day, area gardeners are persevering and, despite challenges from Mother Nature, flourishing, with hundreds of kinds of veggies and flowers growing in dozens of community and employee gardens around town.

Close to the north entrance of Chesapeake Energy’s employee garden, one of the permanent garden plots was cleverly named “I Soiled My Plants” by one of the 50 teams comprised of the nearly 300 employees in the Chesapeake Green Thumb Club. The name garnered first place in the company’s inaugural naming contest last year.

It faced stiff competition from The Grateful Fed, We Got the Beet, Green Expectations, Ivy League, The Mean Green Gardening Machine and The Rough Gnomes, a play on the oil field job of roughnecks, with gnome statues tucked throughout the plot. One would have had to have a sense of humor for last year’s gardening weather, and it’s looking like this year, too.

“We had to replant three times,” said Kat Goodwin, Chesapeake’s garden coordinator, of the 2010 season.

Hail, flooding and then soggy, oppressive heat took out most of their plants.

It hasn’t been easy this year, either, with the stretch of above-normal temps.

Joking aside, the gardens provide a multitude of good for the employees who tend them and get the benefits of their freshly grown vegetables and fruits. The overflow veggies and bounty from four dedicated plots are donated to the BritVil Community Food Pantry.

“There’s trickle-down benefits,” Goodwin said. “It balances out office stress.”

Other benefits she cited include increased employee morale, environmental education, reduced family food costs, more fresh food options, nontraditional exercise and recreation.

To participate, prospective gardeners enroll in a sustainable gardening class taught by Goodwin. She teaches other lunchtime classes on different gardening techniques, like composting, cover crops and season extension with cold frames.

Occasionally, other experts are brought in to teach specific classes, like a class on making home-brewed beer for the employees interested in growing hops in their plots.

Organic seeds and gardening techniques are used, with no chemical pesticides or fertilizer.

The company provided the infrastructure, building concrete plot walls, plumbing it for water access at each plot, and building a storage shed for tools and supplies in each area, plus an arbor and perennial garden in the center.

Chesapeake’s employee garden stretches through a whole city block between N.W. 61st and 62nd streets and Shartel and Lee avenues. It’s ringed by a black, chain-link fence and requires an employee badge to visit.

Chesapeake has assembled a guide to help companies that want to establish an employee garden. One community garden that helps others is at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

“Each year, we provide plants to community gardens,” said Mason Weaver, fresh-food coordinator. “Last year, we gave out 30,000 plants.”

The food bank staff and hundreds of volunteers grow fresh vegetables year-round in its large greenhouse, then the team distributes that fresh produce to food pantries around the metro.

Weaver said they also provide educational materials to help community gardeners.

“It’s a real mix,” he said. “A lot are long-established and worked by community volunteers.”

For the newly minted community gardens, the Regional Food Bank has lots of information and classes to spur them on.

“What I tell people is start small,” Weaver said. “Start with half of what you think you can keep. It’s less work up front. The hardest thing is to get people who are in it for the long haul.”

For its own garden and greenhouse, the food bank maintains a water tank with 300 tilapia for the aquaponics system. The fish waste provides nutrients to feed the plants.

Volunteers help keep the food bank’s garden growing, ranging from single volunteers to master gardening groups that show up to help water, weed and tend the three-acre spread.

The Regional Food Bank serves 53 counties in Central and Western Oklahoma, including food pantries, plus women’s shelters, soup kitchens, senior citizens centers and feeding sites.

“We have 17 semis that run five days a week all over the state,” Weaver said, noting what the Regional Food Bank needs the most is volunteers: “People who will come out and just weed and water.”

Photo by Mark Hancock

 
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