People’s Garden takes shape at Agape


Jeff Mcatee, of Sidney, the pantry coordinator of the Agape Distribution Center, tends to the community garden at the center on Thursday, July 9.

Craig Howell, of Sidney, left to right, and Robert “Robbie” Biza, of Botkins, learn about planting from Kelsey Miller, of Sidney, as Nichole Redinbo, of Sidney, looks at onions pulled by Mary Beth Labbett, of Sidney, in the People’s Garden at Agape Distribution recently. The group took a field trip from S&H Products to assist with the gardening.

SIDNEY — “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Maimonides’s quote meshes nicely with another saying that’s often repeated by people who like to play in the dirt: “If you want to be happy for a lifetime … garden.”

Leaders at Agape Distribution hope to give area residents who don’t have spaces for gardening in their own yards the chance for a lifetime of happiness and food in plots behind their facility on Brooklyn Avenue. The People’s Garden is in its second year of development there. When it’s finished, there will be 40 plots, 4-feet by 8-feet each, for would-be gardeners to rent, plant, care for and harvest.

It’s the brainchild of Agape’s pantry coordinator, Jeffrey McAtee.

“The idea was kind of my dream,” he said. “I’ve seen other agencies, like in Columbus, where they put in beds and grew vegetables for their people and gave classes in how to raise your own veggies. We wanted to have a place where people in the community can grow their own food.”

In the 20 raised beds that have been contstructed so far, Conelia Dixon, a volunteer Master Gardener, with help from Agape staff, family members, neighbors, church volunteers, fellow Master Gardeners and S&H Products associates, is managing a thriving crop of dozens of types of vegetables.

“I consider this whole thing God-directed,” she said. That’s because as each need for the People’s Garden has been identified, it has so far been met at no cost to Agape Distribution. Concrete blocks and soil, plants and labor have all be donated. A grant from the U.S.D.A. allowed the planners to purchase tools. Lowe’s gave “a gob” of plants, she said. Employees at Cargill have been building the structures to contain the beds.

The gifts and work are paying off. Dixon and her crew have harvested onions, lettuce, radishes, basil and shallots already this season. Tomato plants are almost 6 feet tall. Watermelons, peppers, cucumbers, beets, butternut squash, summer squash, yellow squash, zucchini, cabbage, green beans, eggplants, garlic, sage, pumpkins and cilantro are all coming along nicely.

“Everything we pick, we take inside and put in the cooler or give to people getting their groceries (at Agape Distribution),” Dixon said.

The biggest challenge is keeping the deer and groundhogs from helping themselves to a free lunch.

“We had carrots, but the groundhogs tore them all up,” she said. Deer ate all the brocoli that was planted early in the spring.

“We put parsley in, but it’s not there. I don’t know what happened to it,” she added. The addition of netting around the perimeters of the beds has alleviated the problem somewhat.

By next year, McAtee hopes that individuals from throughout the community will be tending their own garden plots in Agape’s backyard. But his deam goes way beyond that.

“The goal is to have an education building with a solar-powered irrigation system, so kids can learn about solar power and irrigation. We’re planning a reflecting garden (which the public can visit for respites from their busy lives). One of the other things we want to do is put a walking path through the woods (which ring the backyard) and put in native, edible plants so we can teach people how to forage for food in the woods. The edible forest. One of the goals is to make this a teaching garden. We want owl boxes and bat boxes for natural pest control. And a greenhouse. And a compost area,” he said.

McAtee knows that his dream will come true in phases. Achieving everything at once would cost about $40,000, funds which at present aren’t available.

There is already one compost bin. Installing all 40 beds — four of which will be wheelchair accessible — by next spring will complete the first phase. The building and irrigation system will be Phase 2.

“Unless we find someone who really wants to build trails,” McAtee said. “We’ll let anyone do anything to help us out. It’s kind of neat to watch it grow. It’s taking on a life of its own.”

“I’m very excited about this whole thing,” said Agape Director John Geissler.

All the gardening has been and will be organic. Getting water to the plots, in advance of the hoped-for irrigation system, now is done by hauling containers in trucks into the yard. It hasn’t always worked out well.

“Someone donated a 275-gallon tank. It had had Roundup in it,” McAtee said. He washed the tank out, thoroughly. But not enough.

“The first time we used it, it killed everything. So this is a learning curve,” he said.

Someone donated a beehive, which excited Dixon because bees are an important part of the plant pollination process.

“But we can’t have a beehive because they’re livestock. You can’t have livestock in town,” she said. So she occasionally shakes the tomato plants and pepper plants to help them pollinate themselves.

Dixon spends part of every day in the Agape gardens and sometimes goes at night, as well.

“I like to do things outdoors. I go to Connection Point Church (of God). I’m connecting to the community and I want to be a good example for my kids. We’re just doing this because we want to give food to hungry people,” she said.

Reach the writer at 937-538-4824. Follow her on Twitter @PASpeelmanSDN.