City Plaza Children’s Garden grows community spirit

by on July 23rd, 2012

It’s already harvest time in the City Plaza Children’s Garden with radishes, lettuce, basil, squash, kale and cucumbers all being picked during June and July. In just a short period of time, the garden has also proved to be a big grower of community spirit.

Harvested produce from the Children’s Garden is being donated to Table To Table. Just last week, four bags of produce were donated to this local organization that provides food for 26 organizations including the Crisis Center.

“I’ve been doing community gardening for many, many years and can’t think of another project that has blessed my heart more than this one,” said Scott Koepke, Soilmates garden educator at New Pioneer Food Co-op.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of this project has been the level of daily engagement I’m having with the homeless community. It’s inspired me to do a garden bed with them somewhere next year called Welcome Home.”

Koepke and Rachael Carlson, who works with the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization, planted the garden on June 3 with the help of children who attended the Iowa City Public Library’s Children’s Day events. It is a collaboration between New Pioneer Food Co-op and the City of Iowa City. Within two weeks of planting lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and other vegetables in the planters outside the Library, all of the seeds sprouted plants and continue to flourish.

Several Library patrons have told staff that they bring their children to the garden regularly to check on the plants they planted on Children’s Day.

An Iowa City mother recently shared with ICPL staff that “My daughter knows exactly which plant she planted. She checks on it at least once a week.”

“There are so many cool interactions that have happened at the garden or because of the garden,” said Carlson.

Koepke shared one of those recent interactions:
“An elderly woman in a walker came by and started gesturing at the lettuce very excitedly. I went over to her and knelt down. She didn’t speak a word of English, but was speaking in her native tongue and gesturing very quickly. I felt like I was back in my Peace Corps days in Senegal, playing charades as we tried to understand one another with our hands. I knew exactly what she was trying to communicate. It was obvious that she was a seasoned gardener. What she wanted me to remember was that if I thinned out the row a bit more, instead of just clipping the tops off in the regenerative method, each lettuce plant would have more room to grow larger. I kept nodding in agreement with her as we did just that on a few plants. Then I clipped some off and offered it to her, which she took eagerly with some radishes I also pulled up. And then she pulled a wallet out of her walker and tried to give me a dollar bill. I shook my head no and gestured that she was welcome to any of the food whenever she wanted it. She understood, smiled and kept on moving.”

Carlson said that same woman has indeed been back to the garden, recently bringing apples to trade for lettuce and cucumbers.

Those involved with setting up the garden were initially concerned about vandalism, but the garden remains intact, and even in a drought season, is thriving.

A Library staff member recently observed a man who regularly sits on the benches outside the Library almost “guarding” the garden, telling a young man recently to stop walking on the stone ledge because “it’s the children’s garden and it’s food.”

Debbie Dunn, a library assistant in the Children’s Services Department, has also been involved in organizing the garden project. Dunn, Carlson, Koepke, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and others have all helped maintain the garden this summer.

The Library has tied several programs to the garden through storytimes, garden walks and more. Koepke has brought children from the Iowa City Parks and Recreation summer camps and the Belin-Blank Honors Center to the garden for programs. Some children who attended garden-related programs hosted by ICPL have had a chance to help out with the harvesting and even get a taste of these fresh foods while learning about them.

On August 30, Koepke will lead the harvest activities and Chef Kurt Friese will whip up some garden goodies for all to sample at a special “How Does Your Garden Grow” storytime for children three to five years old.

“The garden is a hands-on opportunity to educate children about where their food comes from and how things grow,” said Iowa City Public Library Public Relations Specialist April Harder. “Learning gardens are powerful tools for educating children about healthy foods and being environmentally conscious. These small planters offer kids a space to plant, watch food grow in this very public space, then taste what they have planted. Perhaps walking by the garden and seeing it grow will inspire some adults to create small gardens of their own.”

Koepke said he has been learning from mistakes in the garden and already knows what he’ll change next season: more root crops, more low-lying vining varieties (the wind is intense in this location), more flowers, less intensive spacings and perhaps even some grains.

Koepke would like to do a late-season sowing of spinach with a small coldframe or hoop. And he will be doing a cover crop area soon to teach about soil conditioning.

“Every day I’m engaging people in such rewarding, supportive exchanges, not just about gardening, but life in general,” added Koepke. “This is the perfect example of ‘Building Community by Building Soil.’”

Stay tuned to for more information about upcoming programs and to watch our garden grow. At the website, you’ll see a growing gallery of garden photos from June and July.

Upcoming Preschool Storytime:
“How Does Your Garden Grow”

It’s harvest time in the ICPL’s Children’s Garden. Chief gardener Scott Koepke will lead the harvest activities and Chef Kurt Friese will whip up some garden goodies for all to sample. This is a preschool-age oriented program for preschoolers where longer stories and books are shared with fewer activities. Preschool Storytime is recommended for children who are 3, 4 or 5 years old. This event is open to the public. This event will be broadcast LIVE on The Library Channel, Iowa City cable channel 10.

Date: Thursday, August 30, 2012
Time: 10:30-11 a.m.

Location: Meeting Room B
Contact: Children’s Desk, 319-356-5200, option 6

For more info, contact:

Scott Koepke
New Pioneer’s Soilmates
garden education service

Rachael Carlson
City of Literature USA

April Jo Harder
Iowa City Public Library

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