Grow City Teaching Garden demonstrates healthy-garden basics
By Natalie Reidford
Seventy-five years separate them, but World War II and Grow City Gardens are connected.
The connection formed when Laura DeBrock and Grow Organic educator Terri Talarek King, both members of the Knox County Soil and Water Conservation District Education Committee, talked about victory gardens.
“We began talking and found we had common interests,” DeBrock said. “We also opined about how during the 1940s, most homes had backyard gardens and (people) knew how to garden, can food, save seed, etc. We believed these skills to be invaluable but worried that they weren’t being passed on to our current generation.”
DeBrock was also new to gardening and realized other first-time gardeners would need instruction on getting started, just as they did 75 years ago.
“During World War II, fresh produce was scarce and much of the populace didn’t know how to grow their own. So, extension agents across the nation provided materials and hands-on assistance to teach gardening and food preparation and preservation techniques,” DeBrock said.
“The SWCD Education Committee was looking for ideas for community projects. Terri and I proposed the teaching garden concept to the committee, and they jumped on board.”
King and DeBrock proposed the garden idea in 2018. Through the partnership of Knox County SWCD, Vincennes University, Purdue Extension and Knox County Public Library, Grow City Gardens became a reality last spring.
Finding a home
But where to plant this urban garden? King and DeBrock eyed a spot across from KCPL and approached director Emily Bunyan to inquire.
It turned out that KCPL didn’t own that space. However, the back yard of the McGrady-Brockman building, 502 N. Seventh St., was available.
“As it turns out, the (McGrady-Brockman) back yard is a much better location for our purposes than that other empty lot would have been, in so many ways.,” King said. Grow City Gardens uses the storage shed on site and the building is available for indoor programs.
Once it secured the location, though, the education committee did not plan to just start digging in the back yard. A garden begins with good soil, and that’s exactly what the Soil and Water Conservation district is all about. Researching previous property use and soil testing is one of the first lessons the group teaches.
“The Knox County SWCD uses education to teach the importance of soil health,” King said.
In a city as old as Vincennes, property on a historical site could have had many uses spanning hundreds of years. The McGrady-Brockman building, for example, was formerly a funeral home.
The committee knew the soil must be tested before the first seed was planted. Enter: USHER.
USHER stands for Urban Soil Health Education and Restoration, an urban soil-health organization created to promote soil conservation efforts in developed areas of southwest Indiana. In the Vincennes area, the Knox County SWCD Education Committee also serves as working group for USHER.
USHER Soil technician Jeff Coats began soil testing on the McGrady-Brockman property.
While waiting on results, the garden moved forward with raised beds. Grow City Garden’s public education began as Ray Chattin provided a demonstration on how to create a raised-bed garden.
Emily Bunyan and the (Knox County) library staff have been incredibly supportive of the Grow City program and have generously allowed us the use the library property to house the garden and to hold workshops.Laura DeBrock
The garden now has three 4’ x 4’ beds. One is maintained by the KCPL Teen Department, and the other two are connected by a trellis that allows vining plants to grow between the two.
Still moving forward while waiting on soil test results, the first inground 4’ x 8’ bed was created to grow a Three Sisters plot: corn, beans and squash — with sunflowers added too.
“We selected varieties (for the Three Sisters bed) that were also ornamental, in case the soil tests came back bad,” King said.
Luckily, the test results were good and gave the gardeners the all-clear to use the soil for edible produce.
Good test results
The group began work on a second in-ground bed last fall. Though too late in the season to plant, gardeners prepared the bed for spring using a sheet-mulching technique called “lasagna layers.” Compost material layers are laid on top of the ground and allowed to rot during the winter, eliminating the need to dig.
Community members and businesses donated materials from many different places, King said. The lasagna layers consisted of cardboad, sawdust, food scraps and several kinds of manure (cow, rabbit and chicken). Visitors helped layer the beds, and the plot is in use this year.
DeBrock has added a flower-cutting garden this year, on a strip of ground near the garden’s entrance. On the opposite end of the garden is a 5’ x 5’ native-plant pollinator plot. Grow City Gardens has video of the pollinator garden installation on its Facebook page, Grow City Teaching Garden.
Agriculture and natural resources educator for Purdue Extension Valerie Clingerman added a straw bale garden this spring.
Straw bale gardens are “quite a process,” King said. Bales are placed on newspapers and watered heavily for three days. Then for several days, the watering process includes adding nitrogen fertilizer to condition the bale. Upon completion, plants are added by either scooping out the straw and adding soil, or scraping the top of the bale and adding soil.
Programs are at the heart of Grow City Gardens. Last year, programs mainly took place in the garden itself. When possible, attendees worked in the garden and then ate the food that they’d grown.
“It’s important to teach people how to use what they grow,” King said.
Though the March and April programs were cancelled due to the pandemic, the February spring series program took place and was “very successful.” Participants were shown how to analyze a spot for their own garden at home, get the soil tested and plot the ground on graph paper. Speakers included Knox County SWCD members Charlie Ring, Jeff Coats and Will Drews, as well as King.
The March program was to include a potato grow kit giveaway, with two seed potatoes, a bag and planting instructions. Instead, the bags were delivered to interested persons, and most have reported that they are growing well.
Interest in Grow City Gardens has increased since last year, according to DeBrock. Twenty-five participants signed up for the series this year, and participants gave the gardeners positive feedback after the February workshop.
So who is working in the gardens and coming to the workshops? Well, lots of people.
“There really isn’t a ‘typical’ participant – we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the wide age range of people that have attended our workshops,” said DeBrock. “Attendees have spanned from teens to retirees. Some attendees are new to gardening and others have significant gardening experience; however, they all share a desire to learn more.”
Regulars at the garden include members of the KCPL’s Teen Advisory Board, who select their own crops to grow in their raised bed.
“We love the enthusiasm, energy and ideas that they and Roger Stremming, the Youth and Teen Services director, bring to the group,” DeBrock said of the advisory board.
KCPL support has also been instrumental at Grow City.
“Emily Bunyan and the library staff have been incredibly supportive of the Grow City program and have generously allowed us the use the library property to house the garden and to hold workshops,” DeBrock said.
Grow City Teaching Garden workshops
Three autumn workshops are tentatively planned, and some summer popup workshops may take place if COVID-19 guidelines allow. To get on the email list, contact Terri Talarek King at email@example.com or send a message through the Facebook page Grow City Teaching Garden.
For more information on all things gardening, see Grow City Teaching Garden on Facebook for links to articles and previous programs.