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The container community gardens earlier this summer at Eisenhower Tower (Housing Authority of McDonough County) in Macomb. Photo courtesy of Joel Gruver.

WIU Faculty Help Grow Community Gardens Initiative at Housing Authority

September 21, 2010


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MACOMB, IL -- About a year ago, new to Macomb and Western Illinois University, Rob Porter, an assistant professor in Western's recreation, park and tourism administration (RPTA) department, was just looking for a way to enjoy gardening with his new community. Thanks to Mindy Pheiffer, program coordinator at RPTA's Horn Field Campus (HFC) just south of Macomb, Porter met up with RPTA graduate student Emily Schoenfelder and, with the help of Schoenfelder and an organic gardening student group, was able to get his community gardening idea going at HFC. A year and a few months later, Porter's idea has grown into community gardens at other locations around Macomb and McDonough County, including at three different McDonough County Housing Authority locations and a Macomb-community garden at the new East University Drive Sports Complex.

"Shortly after we got the garden started at Horn Field Campus, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant opportunity came across my desk, which was perfect for starting a community garden initiative," Porter explained. "So I got a whole bunch of community partners, as well as my fellow Western faculty members Joel Gruver [assistant professor in WIU's School of Agriculture] and Heather McIlvaine-Newsad [professor, sociology and anthropology], together to pursue that grant."

Unfortunately, Porter was recently notified their grant application was turned down; however, he and his partners in the McDonough County, Illinois, Food Production Initiative, have plans to revise the grant and re-submit it this November to the USDA. But even without the USDA grant monies, the group -- which included such agency and organization partners as the McDonough County Housing Authority, the Western Illinois Regional Council (WIRC), the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) and the Macomb-based Food Initiative Group (FIG) -- was able to pursue gardens at the Housing Authority residences of Eisenhower Tower (Macomb), Fitch Manor (Bushnell) and Greenbrier Townhomes (Bushnell).

"We did receive a $250 grant from FIG, which was basically enough to buy some seed and equipment. So we just kind of pushed forward with the $250 and started the different gardening projects without knowing if we would receive the USDA grant monies," Porter said.

Pooling Resources
The residents of the McDonough County Housing Authority locations utilize a gardening technique that Gruver, who also manages Western's Allison Organic and Demonstration Farm and is a member of FIG, actively endorses for organic gardening projects. Gruver has been interviewed by Western's National Public Radio affiliate, Tri States Public Radio, as well as other media, about the unique method of using children's wading pools (those colorful "baby pools" -- decorated with treasure chests, sea creatures and other aquatic themes -- you often see in people's yards in the summer) as containers for organic gardening endeavors.

"I learned about these container gardens from Dr. Jon Ebenezer, president of the non-profit organization Technology for the Poor (which you can get more information about at www.technologyforthepoor.com)," Gruver explained. "The concept, at first, seemed far-fetched to me. But, a few months later, I noticed dozens of 'disposed of' wading pools on curbs, during the 'everything goes' trash pickup week in Macomb, so I decided to scavenge a few. Next thing I knew, I had filled eight wading pools with varying mixtures of builders' sand and compost. I planted tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, cucumbers, basil, parsley and melons. The crops grew bountifully, and I soon started to visualize many more wading pool gardens, both in my yard and all over Macomb."

The container gardens were also part of the landscape in Bushnell over the summer, with five large "pools of crops" planted at Fitch Manor, Gruver added.

"In early May, Rob, Kathy Millard (from the McDonough County Housing Authority), several residents and I filled and planted three large pools. Eventually, we had a total of five large pools. We planted broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, radishes, snap beans and sweet corn," Gruver explained.

"While Joel and I have spent a significant amount of time helping with the gardens at the Housing Authority locations, the reality is that the residents of the Housing Authority have done most of the work and tended everything. We basically just facilitated getting them pools, seeds and the compost, and we've provided a bit of guidance. But, overall, this has been a wonderful grassroots effort in Macomb and Bushnell," Porter said.

According to Bill Jacobs, the executive director of the Housing Authority of McDonough County, the community gardens have provided an enjoyable experience for the residents, who are very appreciative of the attention of the Western faculty members and the volunteer labor they have dedicated to the gardens at the Housing Authority locations.

"To receive unsolicited attention and work from professionals is a rare treat and honor," Jacobs noted. "Many hours have been spent planning, resource gathering, organizing and implementing the project. It's great to see WIU professors working in the community literally at the grassroots level to provide quality of life enhancements for a diverse population that includes people with disabilities, people who are aging and persons living at or near poverty."

In addition to the gardens at the Housing Authority locations, the community garden in Macomb had a good showing its first year, even with a late start in the growing season. According to Porter, since the garden got started June 1, about 12 different individuals invested in the gardening project (he noted individuals could get a plot for $20) on land the Macomb Park District made available to those in the community who may not have had the yard space to cultivate their own gardens.

"Personally, this has been a very rewarding experience for me. It's really impressive to see the people get involved and be so enthusiastic about it. Over the summer, I often drove by the gardens and they looked beautiful," Porter noted. "And in addition to helping supply healthy organic food to those who may not have the means to purchase fresh, let alone organic, food regularly, it's a great leisure activity experience for people in the communities. Gathering around the garden in the evenings, everybody gets together and enjoys one another through this community experience," Porter said.

For more information, contact Porter at (309) 298-2990 or via email at R-Porter@wiu.edu.

Posted By: Teresa Koltzenburg (TE-Koltzenburg@wiu.edu)
Office of University Relations