TERRE HAUTE, Indiana — There's something about watching a zucchini go from seedling to soup that is satisfying for Jean Diemer.
She and the other volunteers at the St. Patrick's soup kitchen in Terre Haute depend on the many pounds of fresh vegetables donated each week by the Wabash Valley Master Gardeners Association from their Giving Garden at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds.
Along with zucchini, the gardeners harvest cabbage, green beans, broccoli, potatoes and various other foodstuff — hundreds of pounds of fresh produce each week.
Diemer has the satisfaction of having planted some of the crops that are now finding their way to the St. Pat's kitchen, and to other soup kitchens and food pantries around Vigo County, the Tribune-Star reported (http://bit.ly/W13nZU ).
"A lot of people will not eat zucchini, but they don't know it's in this soup," she said, chuckling about the homemade soups that are served to dozens of people each day through the soup kitchens of the St. Patrick's and St. Benedict's churches.
Green peppers, kale, even turnips might get an upturned nose if dished up fresh from the garden.
But boxes of the fresh vegetables are welcomed by the soup kitchen volunteers as they prepare daily meals throughout the year.
Last Wednesday, the master gardeners harvested 279 pounds of vegetables, added to more than 1,500 pounds picked during a two-week period.
Last year, the harvest totaled 22,563 pounds for the growing season. This year, the gardeners are on track for a 25,000-pound season.
"That's a lot of picking. That's a lot of vegetables. But the need is very great," said Greg Fields, chairman of the Giving Garden, located in a remote area of the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds. The garden is now fenced to protect it from wildlife and trespassing vandals. It also has a new sign, and a passive solar greenhouse is being built so that Bibb lettuce can be grown in the winter.
The need for fresh vegetables is greater this year than in the past, according to Fields. The master gardeners are sharing their harvest with 14 different soup kitchens and food pantries this year; last year, they only delivered to three locations.
The Giving Garden is full of life. This year, the gardeners put out 668 tomato plants, along with 480 sweet potatoes, 195 broccoli, 190 heads of cabbage and 220 eggplants. There are also peppers, squash, zucchini and cucumbers. About 150 pounds of seed potatoes were planted, and as an experiment, a row of cabbages was planted as companion plants between the hills of potatoes, to economize space.
The garden also has 24 rows of sweet corn, as well as squash and gourds.
"Before we plant anything new, I talk to the soup kitchens and see what they will use," Fields told the Tribune-Star during a recent tour of the garden.
The garden has moved into its third week of harvest and it will keep producing into October.
"We will put up a hoop frame to do cold weather planting and more cold crops," Fields said.
There are 14 volunteers signed up to help with the garden, and 12 are regularly at the garden to tend the plants and harvest ripened produce.
The volunteers have gone through an extensive master gardeners class.
Diemer completed her training with the Vigo County group this past spring, and is now working on the required community service hours.
She has her own garden in her back yard, where she enjoys working with her husband, Jim, and with their two grandchildren. The Diemers moved to Terre Haute from the Cincinnati area more than a year ago, to be near family. At her previous home, she had no sunny place for a garden. But her current lot has enough space for not only a big garden spot, but also a herb garden, a butterfly garden and a couple of fairy gardens.
"As they say, I live in the garden, and I just sleep in the house," she said.
The Diemers' home is close to Dobbs Park, and a lot of wildlife. So to keep the deer from eating her crop, she enlisted the help of some neighbors — three Indiana State University students — in putting up a tall fence.
Now safe from furry "predators," the garden boasts bunches of sugar snap peas, raspberries, strawberries, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, green beans, herbs, tomatoes and other fresh produce, as well as a goldfish pond and a tall patch of sunflowers.
When her grandchildren visit, the veggies they harvest don't usually make it back to the kitchen before they are devoured. And that's okay with Diemer. Her grandchildren are eating healthy, organic, home-grown food.
That is how Diemer sees the offerings at the soup kitchen, as well.
St. Pat's and St. Ben's churches together served about 6,000 meals last month. The food served at St. Ben's is prepared at St. Pat's, which has a commercial kitchen.
"It's truly a blessing," Diemer said of the volunteer work in the soup kitchen.
A diverse group of people stop in daily for meals, she said. A few are homeless. Many have jobs but after they pay their living expenses, they have no money left over to feed themselves or their families.
"And, you don't have to be in need," she said. "You just come and eat."
One person who visits the kitchen is a widow who doesn't want to eat alone. Another person is handicapped, but does small tasks to be useful. Many of the faces peeking in the door, waiting for the signal to enter the dining area, are elementary-age children, who miss their daily school lunch while they're on summer break.
"The people are wonderful, and they're more than willing to help," Diemer said of those eating at the soup kitchen. In return, the volunteers like to provide fresh salad, a bowl of soup and a piece of bread to each person. There is also a take-home sack meal provided to each visitor.
"We couldn't do it without the Giving Garden," Diemer said.
Donations of leftover bread, desserts and other items are also received from businesses and individuals who want to help.
Last fall, the soup kitchen benefited when the Sisters of Providence made a large amount of applesauce from the apples remaining in their orchard.
"We don't waste anything," Diemer said of the abundance of fresh produce that comes in. "Whatever we get, we use."
Last week the kitchen received 15 heads of cabbage. It was all processed and the visitors had fresh cole slaw. There are also plans to preserve some of the fresh produce by canning it, for use during the winter months.
Even though she only works at the soup kitchen one day per week, Diemer said she feels blessed to know that hungry people benefit daily from the healthy produce from the Giving Garden.
Diemer said she believes the volunteers get back more than they give.
"I'll do almost anything not to miss a Monday," she said.
For more information about the Wabash Valley Master Gardeners Association and the Giving Garden, go online to http://www. wvmga.org.
Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com