When it comes to starting a garden, there’s one thing Kamyar Enshayan always hears.
“A lot of people say something like, ‘I’ve always wanted a vegetable garden, but I just don’t know where to start,’” the director of the University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy and Environmental Education (CEEE) said.
But now when he hears this, he has a ready answer, because a new UNI program, A Garden in Every Lot, is getting started this spring that will help aspiring gardeners start their own home garden at no cost.
The program will provide new gardeners in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls metro area with site assessment, tilling, mulching and compost, and planting services as part of a multi-year quest by the CEEE to improve access to healthy foods, particularly to vulnerable or underserved populations.
“This garden starter set of services can result in more fruits and vegetables for the people who don’t have access to them or can’t afford them,” Enshayan said. “We’re trying to remove barriers so that anyone who wants one can have a garden.”
The project is a partnership between the CEEE and AmeriCorps, a national program of community service that engages adults in public service work, and many community partners; the Leighty Foundation provided seed funding. Work is carried out by AmeriCorps members, including UNI students, and UNI staff. While the staff won’t maintain the garden once its installed, they will be available for consultation.
“Think of us as a support group,” Ensahyan said.
And while it’s still too early to start planting, site assessment work has already begun. Enshayan said 25 people have signed up so far, and other community members interested in the service can apply online, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 319-273-7575. The program is available to anyone who does not already have a garden.
The project joins a number of other efforts by the CEEE and AmeriCorps to address food insecurity and promote fresh produce in the area.
One is a community garden at the People’s Community Health Clinic in Waterloo, a nonprofit health care clinic that provides affordable community medical care. The garden provides thousands of pounds of produce for free to clinic patients and community members, many of whom are minorities or refugees who both struggle to afford produce and find transportation to grocery stores outside of their neighborhoods.
Another UNI/CEEE program, called Greens to Go, is helping tackle the lack of fresh produce in Waterloo neighborhoods. Through a partnership with local growers, the project’s staff goes to area farms and picks produce and then sells it at-cost the same day at a mobile produce stand.
And a precursor to the A Garden in Every Lot program, the Backyard Steward Initiative by UNI’s Green Iowa AmeriCorps, installed gardens in the community last summer.
“Last year, we were able to train over 30 members on how to effectively provide assessments and installations and pull together the program infrastructure itself,” said Ashley Craft, program director of Green Iowa AmeriCorps. “This has been very helpful in having a lot of the groundwork laid for the Garden in Every Lot project.”
For Enshayan, the project goes beyond providing the community with healthy, affordable vegetables. The practice of gardening itself, the nurturing of an ecosystem, can be its own reward.
“A garden is really more than growing vegetables. It’s about being outside, and being close to the soil and the plants; it’s about maintaining something and helping it grow,” Enshayan said. “We’re hoping this will re-energize a culture of gardening.”