Many of us love the rich, sweet flavors of a garden tomato and the taste of fresh green beans, more readily available during the summer months. Others love playing in the dirt and caring for the bountiful vegetable plants. The problem is not everyone has access to a large garden space or the opportunity and time to maintain an entire garden.

Since 2009, the Dickinson County Community Gardens has provided an outlet for families and individuals to plant and harvest healthy produce, gaining access via two donated sites in Spirit Lake. For a small member fee and a bit of labor, nearly 40 families have been involved each year and the number continues to grow.

A Community Garden organizer and a certified Master Gardener, Carol Larson gained a love for gardening as a child. However, lacking the space on her own property, she has been heavily involved with the Community Garden since it first started.

“I’ve always enjoyed gardening and love the fresh produce, but we didn’t have the space at our home. The Community Gardens have provided that for us,” Larson said. “Plus, gardening is mentally and physically great exercise and you get so much out of it.”

The non-profit organization has two sites in Spirit Lake, with one on the corner of 23th St. and Zenith Ave and northeast of Lakes Regional Healthcare. Almost an acre of tilled land, the location hosts the Community Garden and the Dickinson County Donation Garden. The other Community Garden location is just south of Dyno's Convenient Store, off of Hwy 71 and Peoria Ave.

Larson said the gardens’ vegetable and herb priority list includes everything from kale and broccoli to pumpkins and watermelon. There are over 26 different types of vegetables and fruits planted, as well as various herbs such as basil, parsley, and chives. For instance, there are six rows of beans and over 150 tomato plants in the ground.

Community Collaboration
The Community Garden Committee spends much time planning for the next season and starts the planting process in the spring, once the weather and ground is conducive. Tom Steffens donates time to till the ground and other community volunteers prepare the rows for planting. An interested individual doesn't have to be an expert in gardening to become a member, as other gardeners willingly guide and provide education.

“I was one who didn’t know a lot about gardening when I first joined,” said Connie Bjornstad. “I was welcomed from the very beginning and have learned a lot through the years.”

There is a long list of people who volunteer at the Community Garden. Many will donate seeds, signs, or donation tiles. Clyde Ihrke is considered the garden handyman and spends considerable time volunteering around the garden. Larson said if there’s a need for dirt or lumber, Ihrke finds a local lumberyard or contractor to pass on unneeded materials. The Boettcher family donated their time to build the fencing around the Donation Garden. Vugteveen’s Lawn Service helped move the shed when the one garden had to change locations.

“We get help from so many kind souls in our community,” Larson added. “It’s such a blessing!”

Through a Land Use Agreement, Lakes Regional Healthcare donated the land for the nearby garden plot, running water to the hydrant for easy access. While Del Nelson, who was a life-long garden lover, donated the land use by Dyno’s. Del has passed away, but his family continues to let the Community Gardens use the land in his memory.

From Planting to Harvest
Both gardens are planted with the same vegetables. Funds for seeds and plants come from garden memberships. Tomatoes and peppers are started by Gloria Buchman.

As a member, the family or individual is expected to help at least an hour each week throughout the summer to till, weed, water, or harvest the garden. Families are encouraged to work together and children are always welcome to participate.

“We had a mom and her two daughters come help plant and it’s such a delight to watch their reactions,” Larson said. “When a member comes, they can check out the shed board for any hot spots in the garden that require extra attention.”

At harvest time, volunteers are asked to take what they need. Any extra produce is placed in Food Cupboards outside the Dickinson County Senior Center. Other community members can also place excess produce in this location, providing the Iowa Great Lakes area an opportunity to receive fresh produce for free.

As a part of the Healthy Hometown program, Larson said this aspect of the Community Garden is important for the county’s residents. “This allows us to implement several Wellmark principals into lives, as we believe the Community Garden creates a timely solution to combat obesity, disease, and food insecurity while creating a beautiful, unique and peaceful space for the community to enjoy,” she said.

The Community Garden and their Master Gardeners Theresa Golden, Penny Nordstrom and Carol Larson love sharing their knowledge with their community. With the grant from Alliant Energy, they have designed special projects alongside Accura Healthcare for their residents that consists of vegetable and flower raised beds. Another Donation Garden in partnership with Noon Kiwanis allowed the Community Garden to restart a plot at Camp Foster, raising produce to benefit the Upper Des Moines Food Bank.

Donation Garden
An ISU Extension Mini-Grant was awarded to the Donation Garden, paying for plants, seeds, watering supplies, portable sanitation sink, a scale to weigh produce, fencing to surround the garden and protect from deer and other critters, gloves and gardening tools for the volunteers, containers for packaging the produce for distribution and more.

In 2020, the grant has also garnered the help of high schooler Caleb Frostestad. As a part of his Eagle Scout Project, he is serving as the Garden Volunteer Coordinator for the Donation Garden. From creating marketing materials to planting to maintaining and harvesting, Frostestad has spent countless hours caring for the space.

With the help of Master Gardeners and other community volunteers, all of the produce harvested from the Donation Garden goes directly to Upper Des Moines and is given out to residents in the county. The Donation Garden supplies around 1,000 pounds of fresh produce each year for the food pantry.

“I’ve really enjoyed this project and being able to help others. Approximately 10% of the population in Dickinson County is food insecure with 18.5% being children under the age of 18,” Frostestad said.

Different grants have also provided a portable sanitation sink, which requires mandatory use especially when helping with the Donation Garden. All of the food is washed and rinsed and prepackaged for hand out.

“We also welcome any community members who would like to help,” he added.

If interested in volunteering with the Donation Garden, contact Frostestad at CFostestad@gmail.com or visit the sites.google.com/view/dcdonationgarden.

Larson said it's not too late to join the Dickinson County Community Garden for the 2020 season. “The planting is done but not the bulk of the maintenance, and we have fun working together,” she shared. “We will offer a preservation workshop if the tomatoes, peppers and onions crops are bountiful later in September. Nothing better than homemade salsa!”