Gardens established at public housing sites

May 19, 2019

Before the garden was even in place, Semon Thach already knew what she would plant in it.

“Long beans, bitter melons, watermelons,” she said. “Vegetables from Cambodia.”

Thach lives in public housing at Homestead Terrace. The complex is one of three spots Olmsted County Public Health and Olmsted County Housing and Redevelopment Authority officials are teaming with area master gardeners to create gardens for public housing residents.

Thach and her daughter, Sophea, 12, said they look forward to the growing season.

“We’ve been gardening since she came here,” Sophea said.

Thach lives next to one of two 10-foot by 15-foot garden plots residents there used last year. Tenants grew vegetables, herbs and fruits and oftentimes shared them.

“The whole season we had people working on that garden,” said Katie MacKay, OCHRA public housing property manager. “It’s great to see a community come together like that.”

That success prompted county officials to expand the effort this year. They teamed with master gardener Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, who researched food insecurity and ways to address it for her thesis project while earning a master of science degree from Winona State.

“This is what I’m all about — trying to get people to grow food,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick, another volunteer master gardener, an eager resident and MacKay worked Wednesday afternoon to lay cardboard over the grass where the garden will be. They piled compost from the county compost site atop the cardboard.

They added a layer of straw to the top of the compost to keep it from washing away.

Residents can sign up to have a plot in the garden. A Minnesota Statewide Health Improvement Partnership grant provided funding for materials and seeds for the resident gardeners.

“They’ll write down what they want to plant and I’ll go buy the seeds,” MacKay said. “We have a lot of excited tenants.”

Seeds will later be planted in the compost. The cardboard will prevent volunteer weeds and grass from taking over the garden but doesn’t hurt the nutrients in the soil. The garden plants will push roots through the wet cardboard into the soil.

This year’s garden, which stretches 60 feet by 30 feet, will accommodate more growers this year than last year’s test garden. the two other gardens — one at nearby Homestead Green and the other at Westwood in Northwest Rochester — will be 35 feet by 45 feet in size.

MacKay said Kirkpatrick chose the locations for each garden. An afternoon’s work showed why she chose each spot, she said.

“It’s had sun straight all day,” MacKay said. “She picked out a perfect spot.”

However, some of the spots are missing something essential — access to water. Kirkpatrick said that’s one example of how planning and design of housing needs to change to give people the option to grow their own food.

“We don’t even give water to people who want to grow food,” she said.

Kirkpatrick said the county plans to put a cistern near the garden and keep it filled with water for residents to use to tend to their gardens. She said she hopes to help guide future housing development to keep gardening needs in mind as they’re designed.

“If people need affordable housing, they are probably not food secure,” Kirkpatrick said. “There’s big food security issues here and people know about it.”

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