Nanette Levin, Special to The Catholic Virginian

What started as a 140-square-foot plot from which 60 pounds of produce was harvested in 2015 has grown. The Giving Garden at Our Lady of Nazareth (OLN) Parish, Roanoke, has morphed into a 960-square-foot, $18,000 expansion this year. The garden is expected to produce 2,400 pounds of vegetables annually. Food harvested is being delivered to the needy in the Roanoke area. Sixty-three volunteers are working to make this vision a reality.

“This has been a community of very enthusiastic, generous volunteers who have come forward to share their talents, their financial contributions and their time in service to the hungry in our area,” said Cyndy Unwin, who chaired the Giving Garden initiative. “Truly, this has been a community effort — not just us.”

Money secured for the project included a $1,400 grant awarded, in part, because of a recommendation letter from Pastor Brent T. Williams of Colonial Presbyterian Church in Cave Spring. The church’s members are also volunteering hours this summer to help maintain and harvest the Giving Garden.

One of the more than 35 volunteers tends to the Giving Garden at Our Lady of Nazareth, Roanoke. The garden produces 2,400 pounds of vegetables annually. (Photo/Nanette Levin)

Colonial Presbyterian provided a $500 donation. Presbyterian of the Peaks gave $900. A $10,000 legacy grant from an OLN parishioner provided the bulk of the funding. Other OLN parishioners contributed $4,000. The Giving Garden is also collecting data to apply for another grant.

Feeding the needy

Roanoke Area Ministries (RAM House) and St. Frances House Food Pantry on Campbell Avenue are the beneficiaries of the harvest. Vegetables are used in hot lunch meal preparation and given to people for home cooking, respectively.

RAM House is a day shelter for the homeless that provides a hot, nutritious meal daily.

“The Giving Garden is such an asset because we have fresh vegetables in our menu to be used and to serve for our guests,” said Geralynn Trellue, RAM House volunteer/development manager. “Our guests can really tell the difference with fresh green beans, fresh zucchini and squash.”

The donated produce also helps the budget as RAM House provides about 75 hot meals a day or 35,000 meals annually to 3,000 guests. That means 58 16 oz cans of vegetables every day when fresh ones are not available.

“We have a team of volunteers, too, so that if there’s a lot brought in we’ll be able to have those vegetables prepared and frozen, so we don’t let anything go bad,” said Trellue.

She noted Our Lady of Nazareth won the facility’s volunteer group of the year award in 2017, adding that they’ve been volunteering in the RAM kitchen for more than 20 years.

Spurring bigger plans

“This is an incredibly involved parish,” said Catherine Black, who serves as the record keeper for the garden. “The whole concept of expanding the garden was triggered by the Hunger for Change class.”

The class was held in spring 2017 and attended by 60-70 parishioners. That year, 16 volunteers produced 400 pounds of vegetables in the initial 140-square-foot space. Plans began in October for the expansion with an eight-person logistical team that worked into April 2018.

The garden build started April 27. On May 15, volunteers started filling the raised beds with organic dirt. June 2 was planting day. All produce put into the garden was started from seed and donated by OLN parishioners. The first harvest occurred on June 23.

While contractors were hired to install the irrigation system and erect the 8-foot commercial fence, most of the labor was provided by volunteers. Buildout involved 464 volunteer hours, which doesn’t include planning time.

Now, five teams of seven to nine people come in daily to harvest and maintain the 34 raised beds. Volunteers range from children to the elderly, so the higher surface area makes work easier. Every day at 5 a.m. the irrigation system waters plants for an hour.

“There’s a real sense of pride that this has caught on the way it has and the excitement of others, too,” Msgr. Joseph P. Lehman III, pastor of OLN, said. “We’ve always been concerned about other people.”

The priest started the 140-foot plot with Unwin, who is a master gardener.

“We didn’t think we would be able to get the garden finished for this growing season,” said Unwin. “We were able to do that with many volunteers and a great process that Dale (Hemberger) developed.”

Hemberger, who served as construction chair, created templates for the bed construction and the hole digging process, which made it simple for volunteers to create uniform beds.

Plans for the garden include building compost bins, buying carts and tools, and creating a fund for maintenance as boards need to be replaced.

“One of the things we wanted to do was create a garden that’s sustainable for the long-run, and we wanted to do it right the first time so every consideration we made for cost was, ‘Will this last?’,” said Unwin, who described her role as “helping to keep all this enthusiasm organized.”