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GARDENING FOR GOOD

Attention gardeners: Do you have surplus produce? Or do you no longer garden at home? You can still scratch your itch by growing food for local charities


by: JIM CLARK/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Marilyn Ohm of Beaverton picks beans at the Oregon Food Banks Westside Learning Garden in Beaverton. Ohm is among the volunteers who work in the garden to help grow fresh food to feed the hungry.

Barbara Brooks of Gresham used to grow a vegetable garden at home, “but the soil is clay, and I'm tired of working it,” she says.

That hasn't stopped her from gardening, though. Three years ago, Brooks, 68, started a one-woman project to grow food for charity.

Every year Brooks plants and harvests beans, potatoes and other crops in eight raised planter boxes on the grounds of her church, Covenant Presbyterian in Gresham. A couple of times a week, she harvests the produce from the planter boxes and takes it to SnowCap Community Charities, a nonprofit agency serving the poor in east Multnomah County.

“I get my gardener fix by growing veggies at church and donating them to SnowCap,” she says.

The gardening project is her way of volunteering for the agency, Brooks says. She retired 12 years ago from NW Natural Gas, where her job was “office work, and I am so done with that,” she adds, laughing.

“I love taking this stuff to SnowCap. It's fresh, no insecticides, it's fun — it's my farming thing.”

Across town in Beaverton, Chris Helton gets her gardening fix by volunteering at the Oregon Food Bank's Westside Learning Garden, where she and other volunteers grow and harvest fresh produce that helps feed the hungry. Helton, 59, lives in the Bethany area north of Beaverton and no longer has a garden at home. Her husband doesn't like to garden, either, she says.

Helton took up painting after she retired from her 30-year teaching career, but she also wanted to give back to her community in some way, “and I thought this would be fun,” she says.

“Everything I do I'm learning — I've never done this before,” she says as she trims and cleans garlic freshly pulled from the Westside Learning Garden.

Gardeners who no longer plant vegetables for themselves — or who still like to grow things but end up with a surplus of zucchini or tomatoes — can do what Brooks and Helton do and garden for local social-service agencies, whether the garden is their own or someone else's.

SnowCap and the Oregon Food Bank both accept donated produce (see information box). Through the Food Bank's Plant-a-Row program, home gardeners can grow fresh food for hunger-relief agencies. And the Food Bank's two Learning Gardens — one in Beaverton, the other in Northeast Portland — provide a place where volunteers who like working outdoors can pitch in to fight hunger.

“There are all kinds of reasons people volunteer,” says Lisa Waugh, Learning Gardens volunteer coordinator. “But our primary base of volunteers is older; some of them no longer have a garden of their own, so they want to stay involved in gardening. Some still have gardens at home, too, so they do both. I think it's a social thing, and it's for physical activity, and also because they want to help the Food Bank.”

In a one-woman gardening project, Barbara Brooks of Gresham grows beans and potatoes in raised planter boxes at her church, Covenant Presbyterian, and donates the produce to SnowCap Community Charities.

Busy as bees

On a warm Wednesday morning in August, volunteers are buzzing all over the Oregon Food Bank's Westside Learning Garden, which occupies less than a quarter-acre on the grounds of Five Oaks Middle School in Beaverton, just down the street from the agency's westside facility.

While Chris Helton works on the garlic, Marilyn Ohm picks green beans. Ohm, a 70-year-old Beaverton resident, has volunteered at the garden about 3-1/2 years. She also has a garden at home, where she grows tomatoes, peppers, green beans and flowers. But after she retired from her job in electronics assembly, she looked for something else to do.

“I had hip replacement surgery and was getting bored,” she says, smiling.

Over in the plot designated as the Home Garden Demonstration Area, Dawn Anderson is watering the tomatoes. Anderson, 49, who lives in Cedar Mill and works at the Cedar Mill Community Library, likes the fact that this volunteer job to help others is also teaching her more about gardening. The Home Garden Demonstration Area is where volunteers can learn how to plan a garden, including when and what to plant, growing from seeds versus plant starts, and rotating crops.

“I get to experience a variety of plants here,” says Anderson, who also has a small garden at home. “I'd never grown kale before.”

Another volunteer, Joe Hickey of West Union in Washington County, says his specialty is composting. “I enjoy controlled rot,” the 71-year-old says with a grin. “I also do maintenance and build A frames.”

Hickey, who has volunteered here about 10 years, was a professional gardener before he retired. He worked 19 years as the gardener at Providence Portland Medical Center. “I used to say I was a surgeon because I cut off more limbs than anyone,” he quips.

Waugh says she usually has 12 to 15 volunteers show up on Wednesdays to help with the crops, which include tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, beets, cucumbers, squash and chard. Last year the westside garden yielded more than 4,000 pounds of produce and the eastside garden about 7,000 pounds, Waugh says.

“It's a supplement in the face of the demand (for food),” she adds. "What we take in today is usually gone by the end of the day."

"A meal and a meal for two families'

Back at Covenant Presbyterian Church on a recent Friday morning, Barbara Brooks digs into one of the raised beds and pulls out a couple of baseball-size Yukon gold potatoes. She already has picked about 2 pounds of beans — green and yellow wax varieties.

“Here's a meal and a meal for two families,” Brooks says, holding up two plastic bags filled with the beans.

She estimates she'd donated 29 pounds of potatoes and bush beans to SnowCap as of Aug. 7. She's growing just those two crops this year because “they don't take a lot of water,” she says. There is no water at the garden site, so Brooks hauls it by the bucket; each planter box takes about two buckets full. “So on the mornings I water, I don't go for my morning walk — that IS my morning walk,” she says.

An Eagle Scout built the first four planter boxes, and a church volunteer built the next four, she says. Covenant Presbyterian is a big supporter of SnowCap, Brooks adds. “I love working outside, so this was a perfect match.”

The garden doesn't cost much to operate — Brooks shelled out maybe $8 for seeds, and the church supplies the water. “They told me I could play back here if I don't cost them a lot of money,” she says.

HOW TO HELP

Oregon Food Bank

• Oregon Food Bank headquarters-Portland: 503-282-0555

• Oregon Food Bank West-Beaverton: 503-439-6510

• Website: www.oregonfoodbank.org. Click on the “Volunteer” tab for information about helping at the food bank's Learning Gardens in Beaverton and Northeast Portland as well as other ways to volunteer. Click on the “Give Food” tab to learn more about growing and donating produce through the Plant-a-Row program.

SnowCap Community Charities

A nonprofit organization providing food, clothing, advocacy and other services to the poor in east Multnomah County.

• Address: 17805 S.E. Stark St., Portland. Food and clothing donations are received at the SnowCap warehouse door, 17788 S.E. Pine St. (1 block north of Stark), from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

• Phone: 503-674-8785

• Website: www.snowcap.org