Community thrives alongside ‘evolving garden’

“You can almost see them growing,” Rickey Lee said as he looked at the sturdy tomato plants standing straight and tall in the morning sun at the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Garden on Park Avenue.

Lee, who lives in the neighborhood of the garden, works there, harvesting the produce, watering the plants, pulling weeds and doing just about anything to make the garden thrive. He is there on this mid-June morning with Lycoming County Master Gardener Sid Furst, to talk about what needs to be done in the garden. Kale and cucumbers need to be picked, and then sent to the local food bank to help others in the community.

And that’s what it’s all about — community. Creating community by working together to create the garden and giving back to the community by sharing the harvest.

The garden, which is in its fourth year of operation, was the vision of a former social service coordinator at the Salvation Army, Amy McGovern, according to Anthony Perrotta, public relations and program and fund development.

“We were looking to develop a program for some of the clients and families that we service. Amy read about this and said, ‘This is a good idea. Let’s bring this to Williamsport,’ “ he said.

Perrotta said the Salvation Army has several community gardens around the state, so the local group just used them as a model and brought the idea to Williamsport.

“They felt there was a need for a garden in the area where the community could come and do their own gardening,” current social service coordinator Rose Confer said.

“A lot of people live in different housing developments, so this gives them the opportunity to garden, since they don’t have yards. They can go in and do their gardening here,” she added.

To get some expert advice on gardening, the Salvation Army contacted the Lycoming County Master Gardeners. Furst is on the board and the prime coordinator for the program, although there are other Master Gardeners on the committee for the garden.

Every Saturday at 9 a.m., weather permitting, a Master Gardener is on hand at the garden to answer questions and offer advice to those who have plots at the site.

According to Furst, the garden, which has grown every year since it opened, is about three-fourths of an acre in size. There are 20 raised beds, two boxed-in beds, two plots at the back of the garden and five rows.

Some of the plots are tended by individuals and there are some that are the work of various agencies, such as STEP, the Center for Independent Living and Firetree Place.

There is an educational plot where children from Firetree come and learn the basics of gardening from one of the Master Gardeners.

And then there is a community garden maintained by the Salvation Army and volunteers.

“We have a partnership with the food bank. If there’s any extra we grow, we give it to the food bank and to other food pantries,” Perrotta said.

The land the garden sits on was donated by UPMC Susquehanna, and the water for the plants also was provided by the health system. Many of the plants have been donated by a local greenhouse and school horticulture programs in the community.

Community, that word again.

“As you can see we have a lot of different people helping us,” Perrotta said.

Although there is a charge of $20 for a full plot and $10 for a half plot, there are scholarships available if necessary. The money collected goes back into the fund to help pay for tools and plants.

When they sign up for their plot, potential gardeners agree to abide by the guidelines of the garden, such as taking care of their plot at least once a week and volunteering hours toward community gardening efforts, such as making compost. The garden uses organic gardening techniques.

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank offers classes on nutrition periodically and Confer said she is looking into having them come to the Salvation Army and do this later in the growing season.

“It’s an evolving garden is what it really is,” Perrotta said.

One of the Master Gardeners had a vision of a high tunnel, which would provide shelter to extend the growing season, both at the beginning in the spring and at the end in the fall. That is expected to be in place by the fall.

To celebrate the harvest, the group holds a Harvestfest in September. They use the produce from the garden for the event in addition to other food.

“It’s a celebration of a good harvest,” Perrotta said. “It’s a community event; all are welcome.”

“The mission of the Salvation Army is giving back to the community, and I think this gives back to the community in a big way,” Confer said.

Anyone who would like to volunteer to help with the garden may contact the Salvation Army office at 570-326-9187.