DECATUR, Ill. — Nestled behind a small, primitive house on the city’s southwest side sits a lavish garden designed to feed those in need.

The Heritage Garden is part of the Homestead Prairie Farm located at Rock Springs Conservation Area. The garden and the adjacent house are reminiscent of life in the 1860s. Although the house has not been lived in for decades, the garden is fully functioning.

“This is truly a community garden,” said master gardener Sonya Anthony.

Anthony and other master gardeners tend to the 53-by-22-foot plot of land from late April until early November. They alternate the vegetables throughout the season to utilize the space.

For example, the gardeners plant summer produce such as tomatoes and peppers, after radishes have been harvested.

“Because that is a cold-weather crop,” said master gardener Doug Antonelli. “You can put them in before the last frost. It loves the frost.”

According to Antonelli, this process maximizes the amount of produce, as well as maintains the display from April to November. The food grown ranges from cucumbers to kohlrabi to carrots and kale. Volunteer gardeners have only one rule: They can use only the resources available in the 1860s. The fruits and vegetables were common to the area more than 150 years ago. Tools and equipment are reminiscent to the times. And only natural pesticides were used to keep bugs and other critters away. If a produce or technique wasn’t used in the 1860s, the group will not use it in the Heritage Garden.

“We can’t mess with tradition,” Anthony said. “We don’t use any fertilizer on this garden. If the bugs eat it, they eat it.”

Chicken wire is attached to the bottom of the picket fence to prevent rabbits from entering the garden area. Marigolds are planted in between plants to repel bugs. Visitors can also see hollow gourds hanging from ropes to startle deer. The group added another higher row to prevent the deer from entering.

“They can jump high,” Anthony said. “When you have this dinner plate right here, why would you not.”

Antonelli must keep a record of how many pounds of produce is donated. In 2016, the volunteers harvested a bumper crop of 700 pounds.

“Prior to that I never got over 500 pounds,” he said.

The gardeners learn much of their information during the Master Gardener classes offered at the beginning of the year. They classes end in April, just in time to start planting.

Volunteers maintain the Heritage Garden, but the community benefits from the produce. Good Samaritan Inn and Decatur Catholic Charities receive much of the fruits and vegetables. The animals at Scovill Zoo have also received whole tomatoes, peppers and green beans.

The food is often distributed to people in need as well as cooked into dishes for the food kitchens.

“This gives them a chance at fresh vegetables,” Anthony said.

The staff at Decatur’s Good Samaritan Inn serve approximately 325 people a day, seven days a week.

“We chose to make a healthy food line,” said Rev. Stacey Brohard, Executive Director of Good Samaritan.

Brohard has found local produce is not only healthier, but is economically efficient.

“The shelf life of local food is longer,” he said. “And the nutritional value is better.”

The community also benefits from the garden before the food is picked. Volunteers at Rock Springs Center often offer educational opportunities for school trips and other events throughout the year. Volunteers show students, both young and old, how to harvest the food and eat it.

“Most have never eaten a green bean straight off the vine,” Anthony said. “They are very skeptical.”

The heavy rains this season has caused a delay in the growth of some plants. Since the garden is considered a backdrop for the various Rock Spring events, the volunteers are motivated to keep it up. Because the radishes weren’t ready to be harvested, Antonelli planted the tomatoes before he normally would.

“We planted next to the crop, on top of the radishes,” he said. “We just roll with the punches.”


Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, http://bit.ly/2r79JcE


Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by the (Decatur) Herald & Review.