Gardeners support the community as they Grow & Give Back

A child holds an small orange tomato close to the camera
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The gardens of Livingston, McLean and Woodford Counties grew with great pride this summer because they were deemed Giving Gardens.

In 2021, amid poor economic conditions and stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Illinois Extension serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties began the Giving Garden program.

With strong community support, gardeners of all ages were called upon once again in 2022 to grow and donate fresh vegetables or cut flowers using a little extra garden space. Illinois Extension provided a free cut-flower or vegetable Giving Garden kit with season-long educational resources to any gardener who committed to donating 50% of the harvest to a local food pantry, care facility or neighbor in need. A committed group of 53 gardeners, gardening groups or gardening families took the pledge to “Grow & Give Back”.

The 4-H Federation Club in Livingston County discovered many hands make light work and greater impact. With shared responsibility for garden chores, the group discovered weekly tasks of watering and weeding add up to a harvest worth sharing.

“It is amazing to water the garden each week and see new vegetables growing that directly help families in need.”
- Sydney Gragert. 4-H Federation club member

Theresa Schopp, knew the project was a success when club members recognized daily tasks built a strong collective effort.

“It may take a long time to grow, and keep watering, but the result is well worth it.” 
- Christopher Corrigan. 4-H Federation club member

Across all three counties, gardeners discovered new ways to give back. Master Gardeners across the three counties incorporated Giving Gardens into their home gardens, at Master Gardener project sites like Yost House, and even into workplace settings like McLean County Adult Probation Unit. Lifelong home gardeners found new ways to connect with the community and some budding gardeners emerged.

Woodford 4-H member, Grace Neukomm, discovered her budding green thumb and developed...

"...a real ownership of the project” 
- Erin Neukomm. Mom of Grace N.

To support their daughter’s commitment, Mom strategically laid out Illinois Extension educational handouts and Dad built a garden greenhouse. Grace took great pride in gathering the first flower arrangement; gifting these flowers to her senior neighbor. Grace’s mom wonders if the seeds (of gardening) weren’t planted years ago by this loving neighbor who adores both gardening and a lifelong relationship with Grace.

The Giving Garden program offered many opportunities for one Pontiac family to reflect on their ability to share fresh vegetables. The mother of the family said it was a humbling experience to see the cars wrapped around the block that awaited a weekly food box and to see the stark difference in vegetable selection, between garden and grocery store vegetables. Even the children learned from the experience. When heading home, the children made the goal to donate their entire garden of produce the next year.

Central Illinois food pantries are fortunate to receive food donations from two area food banks, grocery retailers, and one-time donations from local farmers. However, the lure of a garden-fresh tomato is loved by everyone. When Giving Gardeners arrived at churches, area businesses, or neighborhood homes, the produce donations...

“…(were) disappearing the moment I walk(ed) in the door.”
- Giving Gardener. 

This sentiment was experienced by many Giving Gardeners at food pantries that were thankful for the fresh garden vegetables when packing weekly food boxes, sometimes up to 170.

Each selection of cut flowers, carefully arranged, was met with surprise, smiles, or hugs. Residents in a local care facility, and a family stretching every dollar, found the thoughtful arrangements very uplifting; while hardworking care workers and facility staff were reminded of their value when receiving the floral gift.

With a little coordination, and a few packets of seeds, the gardens in Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties have helped improve food access and day-to-day living for fellow community members. With 1,500 pounds of produce donated and 200 flower arrangements delivered, it is clear, the resilience of a strong community comes from within the neighborhood.

For more information on the Giving Garden program, please contact the McLean County Extension Office.

Photo Credit: Daughter helps with harvest by Emily Lampert, Giving Gardener

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Liz Repplinger is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Coordinator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. A Bloomington-Normal native, Liz earned a B. A. in Animal Science and an M.S. in Animal Science from Illinois State University. She has enjoyed contributing to the multiple facets of Extension including as a 4-H Youth Development Program Coordinator, an Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Coordinator and as a member of Unit and Statewide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives.