basin-backyard-garden-donation-to-ministry-on-the-margins-31By Pam Vukelic

If you walk, rather than drive, around Bismarck you can’t help but notice an abundance of gardens. There are, of course, flower gardens, vegetable gardens, and herb gardens. I’ve come across a pollinating garden and a dragonfly garden. I’ve noticed a memory garden and a peace garden. And I’ve found several community gardens with hundreds of plots. They’re at United Tribes, near the ball field off Front Street, on Calgary Avenue, and near Airport Road. At Buckstop Junction is the GROW Garden where once a week gardeners with disabilities gather to plant, weed, and harvest.

One garden that might not be on your walking path, though, is Basin’s Backyard Garden, found on the grounds of the Basin Electric Power Cooperative. There, nestled between a few trees and near the parking areas, is a thoughtfully planned and lovingly tended garden. The gardeners are a cadre of Basin employees who have answered the call to volunteer.

In 2014, Tracie Bettenhausen, Senior Staff Writer/Editor for Basin, proposed the Backyard Garden idea to her co-workers. Perhaps the seed had been planted when she worked in her own community garden plot. She proposed the project as an opportunity to put into practice some of the seven principles on which cooperatives are built. Her group of volunteers now numbers about 50.  Workers show up when Tracie puts the word out that there are, for example, weeds to pull, radishes to thin, and bags of lettuce to deliver. Some of the gardening is done while workers are on a break or during lunchtime. Workers even show up on weekends for a bit of R and R after a hectic week.

Each of the first two years of the garden’s existence yielded about 500 pounds of produce which was harvested and given away. In the third year, nearly 1,000 pounds of produce was donated. The vegetables go to various food pantries found under the umbrella of the Hunger Free North Dakota program. Recipients included the Great Plains Food Bank, Burleigh Emergency Food Pantry, Ruth Meiers Hospitality House, Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald House Charities, Trinity Lutheran Church, Bismarck Senior Center, and Community Action.

Individuals who frequent Bismarck’s food pantries place great value on fresh produce. Having fresh tomatoes or basil is a real treat. The recipients value the donations from a nutritional standpoint and from the novelty of having something fresh from a local garden. Also, for many, the foods evoke memories of times past when they nurtured their own gardens, something they may no longer be able to do. Residents at the Bismarck Senior Center, for example, get excited about radishes, usually the first to mature. For others, the foods offer the opportunity to prepare a favorite family recipe, such as knoephla soup when celery and potatoes are available. This is a clear example of the cooperative principle of concern for the community.

Another cooperative principle is education, training, and information. Visitors to the garden have included Montessori and elementary school children. Montessori kids have done art and craft projects using the vegetables for stamping and paint brushes. Highland Acres students came to study the garden as they dreamed of creating a school garden in their neighborhood. The children learned how seeds become plants. I’m reminded of the story I heard about the grandfather who took his young grandson to his garden to dig potatoes for supper. The incredulous child said, “Grandpa, why do you keep your potatoes in the dirt?” These kids will know better.

Cooperation among cooperatives, another of the principles, has been pursued by collaborating with members of the BisMan Food Cooperative. The Basin garden and the food co-op ideas started at about the same time. The gardeners hosted the food co-op members to encourage membership and promote cooperative concepts.

Tracie took me on a tour of the garden. It is well on its way to serving the community again. The rows of beans and peas are pushing their tendrils out. The corn is standing tall, the potatoes look stocky, and the vining plants have room to spread. I expect the volunteers will get great pleasure from distributing the literal fruits of their labor to grateful Bismarck residents.

As a related project, the Basin employees participate in Casual for a Cause, a summer jeans-wearing initiative. Over $40,000 has been raised through this project with the money being used to support the Great Plains Food Bank and United Way’s Backpacks for Kids programs. You don’t even need to get any dirt under your fingernails to help in this way!   

Pam VukelicPam Vukelic is an online FACS (Family and Consumer Science) instructor for the Missouri River Educational Cooperative. Pam’s garden is mainly herbs, small pumpkins, and gourds. She enjoys giving her bouquets to friends and neighbors this time of year. She plans to share the gourds and pumpkins for fall arrangements.