This garden grows friendships, too

On a pretty plot of land behind St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of West Kaua‘i, members of the Kekaha Community Garden are growing friendships alongside rows of organic tomatoes, herbs, cabbages, beans, papayas, lettuce and peppers.

“It’s really kind of magical,” said Diane Shoemaker, co-founder and director of the nonprofit garden she calls a “communal” garden. “People are becoming friends. They’re playing tennis together, they’re biking together.”

Community gardens have become increasingly popular around the country, and with the steady hikes in food prices in recent years, more practical for many families.

At the nonprofit Kekaha Community Garden, a family membership costs $35 a month. Each family or household agrees to garden for two hours a week. One member of the family can garden, or family or household members can take turns, she said. Tools and supplies are provided.

“You don’t have to know a thing about gardening to join,” she said.

No individual plots are provided. Members work the fields as a group.

In exchange, members can take home a box full of organic fruits and vegetables each week, and they can also participate in regularly scheduled training workshops on planting, seeds, food preparation and nutrition.

Affordable produce is not the only advantage, she said. “We just did a survey, and people say they are eating healthier.” Plus, she added, gardening is good exercise.

Training is provided in partnership with Kaua‘i Community College.

“It’s beyond just growing our own food. It’s a resource and training center,” she said. Non-members also are invited to join the workshops.

The garden is open to the public from 8 to 11 a.m. Thursdays and from 4 to 7 p.m. Sundays. For members, the garden is open daily “from dawn to dusk,” except Sundays, when the garden is closed from dawn until 9 a.m.

The garden is 1 year old this month, but the March ,2011 opening date was preceded by two years of planning and preliminary work, Shoemaker said.

A group of Kekaha residents joined members of St. Paul’s to plan the garden on land next to the church at 8610 Kiowea Rd. “It’s very grassroots,” she said.

Since then, the garden and its 14 members also have become a source of donations to food pantries on the island.

“They’re so grateful to be getting fresh produce,” she said.

The garden has welcomed school field trips, allowing a hands-on experience for students ranging from pre-school to high school age. “And they go home with produce,” Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker said she got the idea for the garden after discovering a shortage of organic produce stores on Kaua‘i. Her experience working for environmental nonprofits and their volunteers helped her manage the community garden and its volunteers.

“I’m doing something I’m passionate about, so it’s a win-win,” she said.

“It’s so cool to hear people go, ‘Wow, I’m learning how to garden.’” she said. “It’s just a neat, neat thing.”

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