by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Now in its fourth year, Bethel College’s Sand Creek Community Gardens is in a new location, where it’s nurturing the seeds of a new food-service initiative.
The garden, which has 30 plots and 23 gardening individuals or families, is located just north of the Memorial Grove trailhead for Sand Creek Trail on campus.
New to the garden – though not to gardening – is Aladdin Food Service Director Nolan Corné, who’s growing tomatoes, several kinds of hot and sweet peppers, summer and fall squash, eggplant, Swiss chard, melons and cucumbers, all of which he hopes to serve to student diners in Bethel’s cafeteria.
Corné gardens at home, though it’s usually just a small plot (“a salsa garden,” he says) since the long hours required of food service don’t give him much free time. It was a challenge to take on the 20x20-foot plot in the community gardens area.
He didn’t expect to feed Bethel students on the meal plan from his garden this year, or even next year when he hopes to double his space with two plots. But growing these vegetables – organically, according to SCCG guidelines – is the start of what he imagines could be something bigger.
Meanwhile, those gardeners who have been part of the project since it began in 2010 have plenty of good things to say about the move.
“I'm positive about everything in terms of our transfer to this new garden space,” says Duane Friesen, a retired Bethel College professor who serves as the volunteer garden coordinator. “It's former alfalfa pasture and it's extremely productive.
“The transition has been very smooth – college maintenance staff has bent over backward to get our parking in, improve the existing road to the gardens, put in the irrigation system, prepare the soil, create a wonderful large mulch pile of leaves collected from college grounds and a big compost pile and give us big bark and compost piles.
“The person from the maintenance staff at the college who has helped most with the transition is Fred Unruh,” Friesen added. “He moved the shed, the sign, the bark pile and helped move the rose bushes, tilled the gardens, developed the parking lot and road, put in the drainage pipes and cleaned up the brush piles and other debris that was in the area. He has spent many hours to make the gardens a success.”
Fourth-year gardeners Erna and Richard Rempel of North Newton have spent significant time helping with the transition from the original garden space on 24th Street in North Newton.
Erna Rempel is part of a new commons committee that is responsible for the areas and plants that will be shared by everyone, including the perennial garden that is front and center.
“Joanna [Fenton Friesen] and I did many, many hours of work,” transplanting the perennial flowers, Erna Rempel said.
“I'd come home so late, Richard would ask me if we were planting by car light. We had to dig out the alfalfa in the new garden and then get the plants out of the old garden while also getting rid of the bindweed. It was a longer process than just digging.”
“Erna and Joanna did a fantastic job moving the perennial beds,” Friesen says. Fenton Friesen designed the new one, he notes.
“The commons areas have been a lot of fun,” adds Erna Rempel, “and our work has been rewarded.”
Early in the summer, the Bethel College Mennonite Church youth spent a day of their service week helping with the perennial garden.
“They contributed a lot with their work and enthusiasm,” Rempel says. In addition to installing the limestone border, “they seeded the basil and some of the annual flowers. I think some had never planted anything before, and they were really enjoying it.”
Besides the flowerbed and decorative perennial plants such as the two beds of knockout roses, the commons areas include vegetables, herbs and fruit.
The grant that Sand Creek Community Gardens received from the state of Kansas in 2012 helped buy asparagus (Friesen planted four dozen plants this spring) and rhubarb, plus cherry, pear and persimmon trees. Blackberry, currant and gooseberry bushes are on order.
Richard Rempel noted that the cool, wet spring and the rain in the last few weeks have helped with a smooth transition.
“All the things we transplanted did really well, because of the rain,” he says.
“The gardens look better than they ever have, in the fourth year,” says Friesen. “They are well cared for and productive. We had excellent crops of potatoes, onions and green beans – and now watermelons.”
Nolan Corné proudly served watermelon from the Aladdin plot to rave reviews at the faculty and staff “First Supper” Aug. 11.
In addition to melons, Corné also planted squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, Swiss chard and both hot and sweet peppers.
“Organic is the way to go,” he says. “It's the way society is going. The students want organic food, but it's expensive.”
Gardening is a personal passion for him, he says, but he's also “trying to find a way to cut the cost of organic produce.”
His first-year garden, though it will add something extra to cafeteria options, isn't big enough as is, or even double in size as Corné anticipates next year, to feed the demand.
Looking down the road, Corné hopes to involve more students in the gardening, “to make this long-term sustainable, not just a one-time thing” for Bethel food service.
He dreams of seeing organic gardening become part of Bethel's curriculum.
“Gardening is work, a discipline,” Corné says. “Being involved in the community garden is not just about food service and customer service, it's incorporating some of my personal life into my work.
“I want to offer students something they'll take with them into their own gardens and lives,” he says. “I want to plant seeds in the hearts and minds of students.”
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2013-14 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2013-14. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.