It is estimated that farming began out of necessity as early as 10,000 B.C. Today, with a continual rise in food prices, concerns about pesticides and a change in food quality—do grocery store tomatoes have taste to them anymore?—what was once a lost art is now growing in numbers.
An estimated 43 million U.S. households, including the White House, picked up a trowel and planted edibles in 2009.
“Gardening and growing is a lost art,” says Jan Happel, founder and president of Heaven and Earth Growers. “It’s not that difficult.”
There is satisfaction in growing your own food, she says, and even more satisfaction in growing and giving in abundance to those in need.
The motto behind Heaven and Earth, a nonprofit Christian ministry of growers, is We Grow to Give.
“We grow food and share our harvest with those in need,” says Happel. “We also share our love for growing things. It is one of life’s greatest pleasures to plant a seed, watch it grow to harvest and share what you grow.”
With the first vegetable garden planted at the Elmhurst Presbyterian Church in 2007, Heaven and Earth Growers donated 534 pounds of food to local pantries. To date, Heaven and Earth Growers has donated more than 2,225 pounds of fresh produce—a majority harvested from churches, some from the community garden in Golden Meadows, and some community donations.
“In 2006, I had a large garden myself, two children away at college and a husband who traveled,” Happel says. “I began sharing my food, gathering with friends at church, and decided to start Heaven and Earth Growers.”
What originally started as an organic garden club with planned programs and meetings, the Growers became more “choreography” than Happel anticipated.
“We’ve become more of a ministry than a garden club.”
Fresh vegetables have been donated to the Humanitarian Services Project in Carol Stream, Yorkfield Pantry, IC Food Pantry, Shared Senior Housing in Elmhurst, Elmhurst United Community Concern, Northern Illinois Food Bank and P.A.D.S. (Public Action to Deliver Shelter).
“We’ve pared it down to local organizations, which requires less driving and less carbon dioxide emissions,” Happel says. “Also, some organizations have refrigerators and some don’t, so we have to time it right so our harvests have a quick turnover.”
For individuals receiving donations, this often is the only fresh food they receive. Most food pantry donations are nonperishable, canned food which is highly processed, overly salted and not organic, she says.
In 2010, Heaven and Earth Growers expanded to Church Street on the south side of the First United Methodist Church. The garden is maintained by the Methodist Church, St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, Immaculate Conception Parish, and Heaven and Earth Growers.
“We plant in raised or separated beds. This way, we don’t have to rototill every year. We just refurbish the beds with organic fertilizer and plant,” Happel says.
The Church Street garden is watered with rain captured by four rain barrels on the property. Groups, including Girl Scouts and Eagle Scouts, are organized to help one week per month so as not to overtax any one group. They weed, water, harvest and deliver June through September.
“The garden is rewarding in so many ways,” Happel says. “All ages benefit from gardening, but teaching the children is really special. Three year olds love to dig in the dirt, plant seeds. They grow to love gardening. Some children have never been in a garden before. They don’t know corn grows on stalks. Some think food comes from the grocery store.”
At the Presbyterian Church, children go out to the garden during the sermon, then bring the harvest to the altar, she says.
Happel’s advice to first-time gardeners: Start small. Think organic. Don’t use chemical fertilizers. Variety makes it better. Learn when to pick. Learn to be sustainable.
According to the W. Atlee Burpee & Co. seed company, a home vegetable garden “will result in a 1 to 25 cost-savings ratio.” In other words, $50 in seeds and fertilizers could result in $1,250 worth of produce.
In addition to saving money, home vegetable gardening has multiple benefits. It allows you to grow herbicide-free and pesticide-free food, reduce the impact of commercially transported produce across countries, create a sense of community as you share gardening responsibilities or harvests, educate children about healthy food and provide a sense of accomplishment.
Faith-based organizations wanting to start a plot can contact Happel for help setting it up. Home gardeners do not have to be a member of the church to donate a harvest. When donating food, please give a few days advanced notice. For more information, contact email@example.com
Writer Barbara Lonergan contributes a regular feature for the Elmhurst Cool Cities Coalition titled, We Caught You Doing Something Cool. If you spot someone around town doing something cool to impact the environment, contact Elmhurst Cool Cities at firstname.lastname@example.org. Elmhurst Cool Cities Coalition is a volunteer coalition of local institutions, organizations, business leaders and citizens working to achieve the goals of the Sierra Club Cool Cities campaign and the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement.