Dorothy Russo, Al's Garden Center’s head grower, addressing Gervais Middle School students during greenhouse tours at the company farm in Hubbard, Ore.

Support for local community organizations is a hallmark of independent garden centers. When schools and other groups need fundraising help, they often turn to local IGCs first. Now growing interest in community gardening, local foods and edible schoolyards is turning the tables and providing IGCs with fresh opportunities to deepen community ties and take the cap off the traditional spring season.

Reconnecting with community garden roots.

At Mendham Garden Center in Chester, N.J., co-owner Greg Loth and his staff are on a mission to simplify gardening for their community. By hearkening back to the patriotic roots of community gardening and the Victory Gardens of WWII, Loth hopes to reconnect gardeners with the simple victory of growing their own food.

Loth believes that information overload overwhelms many would-be gardeners.

“A lot of people could be involved in gardening, but they haven’t been exposed to it in a simple way,” he says. By helping people experience a part of history with a victory garden — whether a container or a community plot — excitement displaces discouragement.

“It’s a simple process to grow something. Then you eat it at the dinner table three months later,” Loth says. “There’s a lot of excitement that goes with that.”

Mendham’s victory garden focus got a boost when a local elementary school principal saw one of the IGC’s WWII-era Victory Garden posters. With Rosie the Riveter and superheroes such as Batman, Robin and Superman in Victory Garden settings, the posters became an age-appropriate history lesson and a coloring project for second graders. Another helpful fit is the IGC’s civic gardener, Cole Kleitsch, a former history and civics teacher. Kleitsch takes the Victory Garden message into the community through personal involvement with veterans and other groups.

“We don’t need a war to get together to start a garden,” Kleitsch says.

Last winter, Mendham staff visited community garden clubs and fostered connections with community gardens and local organic growers using the historic and patriotic to spur interest. The focus remains on simplicity, victorious gardening, organic methods, and locally grown produce. Late-summer plans include seminars in canning and pickling, while winter will see community groups on site learning about year-round growing through indoor gardening.

“We want to help people continue the gardening experience year-round,” Loth says. “The victory is in the growing.”

In 2013, McKay Nursery started a staff vegetable garden that the same year produced more than 3,000 pounds of produce distributed to employees, four local food pantries and two local fire departments.
Taking school connections into the field.

Many IGCs are connecting to school gardens, but Oregon-based Al’s Garden Center is forging school connections with a broader scope. By partnering with a statewide Adopt a Farmer program designed to reconnect kids with their agricultural roots, Al’s is reaching the next generation of gardeners and horticulturists.

When Oregon Aglink approached Al’s, the program seemed a natural fit given the company’s history of community involvement and service.

“This type of involvement is grounded in this company’s values,” says Laura Hammond, Al’s director of marketing. “Being part of the communities we serve is one of the ‘seeds of knowledge’ training that all employees go through at Al’s Garden Center.”

Adopt a Farmer pairs agricultural businesses with classrooms for the academic school year. This past year, Al’s first in the five-year-old program, the company was matched with a class of 70 eighth-graders, complete with related science curriculum. At this academic level, the classwork involved a simulation of a nursery production business, including crop choices, planting decisions, production spreadsheets, profit/loss statements, and even roll-of-the-dice variables such as unexpected utility increases. Students visited Al’s farm and were exposed to propagation, automation, and crop rotation, and Al’s staff visited the classroom in return.

Mallory Phelan, Oregon Aglink vice president of operations, says the program reached out to ranchers, nurseries, and wineries in an effort to show kids that agriculture and farming involves more than traditional crops such as beans and corn.

“There’s no one else that we know of with the same type of program,” Phelan says. Organized and run through a nonprofit, it covers expenses for the field trips, substitute teachers and other related costs. Several nurseries have now joined the program’s ranks.

Hammond says that rewards from Al’s involvement range from “revived and re-excited” employees to the look on a child’s face. The staff is excited about the approaching school year. “It’s a win all the way around,” Hammond says. “We want to cultivate our love of the earth and gardening into the next generation.”

Building community from the inside out.

For Wisconsin-based McKay Nursery, connections with community gardens and school initiatives reach wide, but also stay close to home. One example is the company’s employee garden, started in 2013 as part of a regional initiative to increase sustainability among businesses. Set on land previously used for production with seed started in McKay’s greenhouse, the first garden yielded more than 3,000 pounds of produce distributed to employees, four local food pantries and two local fire departments. About 30 employees now work together on a scaled-back version, handling planting, weeding, harvesting and watering.

Much of McKay’s community involvement impacts schools, healthy eating programs, and sustainable native or edible landscape projects that transcend typical garden connections. One example is a regional healthy-eating initiative affiliated with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program and the Wisconsin School Garden Network (WSGN). Beth Hanna, training and outreach specialist for WSGN, is enthusiastic about McKay’s support.

“McKay really gets involved, with fruit trees and edible packages in a very supportive, branded way,” she says. The company name is associated with healthy-eating and local foods programs, and winning schools have edible McKay plants in their school gardens.

McKay’s landscape and design studio has worked with several schools on projects incorporating edible landscapes and natural play areas. School fundraising packages include edible or native plant packages, herb starter kits, wild bird gardens, and other themes that can be used as teaching tools as well. Design staff are also well-versed in helping schools and other organizations write grants for garden projects. One example of community impact is HOME GR/OWN Milwaukee, a project to transform vacant urban lots into “pocket parks” with community gardens and sustainable designs that incorporate fruit trees, vegetables and native plants, while improving community access to healthy, locally grown food.

Mark Bigej, Al's COO, greeting Gervais Middle School students.
Launching with limited resources.

By nature, community requests for donations and IGC involvement often come when you can least afford to invest staff and resources. But making community involvement a priority — and spreading foundation-building programs throughout the year — can limit high-season interruptions and extend patronage beyond spring.

At McKay, that means getting involved with causes you care about rather than something trendy, as evidenced in the company’s commitment to schools and edibles.

“Any time we can help introduce a new generation to hardy perennial edibles, it just seems like a great win-win,” says Tim Flood, president of McKay. He notes that timing can be tricky, but encourages IGCs to start small and grow new ideas and partnerships in the off season.

With the success of Adopt a Farmer, Hammond suggests IGCs partner with statewide agriculture and other larger organizations.

“When the agricultural community and private garden centers and community connect, that’s when good stuff happens,” she says. “We’re all resource-limited, so leverage what other people are doing. Find a partnership that complements, then tap in, to have as big an impact as possible.”

With simplicity spelling victory at Mendham Garden Center, Loth keeps his advice for community connections just as straightforward.

“I look back at the business over so many years, and people looking for that next SKU to make a difference,” he says. “Let’s do what we enjoy doing — helping people — and everything else will follow.”

Jolene is a freelance writer and former hort professional based in Madison, Wisconsin. She is a frequent contributor to GIE Media Horticulture Group publications.