With a gardening pitchfork in hand, 37-year-old Christina Collins spent a few minutes last week clearing soil plots at the University of Missouri Extension Office in Harrisonville before she began planting an assortment of seeds into the earth.
Within a month, the Harrisonville mom of eight hopes to see the labor of her work begin to sprout up from the dirt-filled plant boxes located on the east side of the office building on Wall Street.
April 11 was opening day for the community garden that was launched last year by David Hoffman, program director for the Cass County University of Missouri Extension Office.
The idea for a community garden was spurred in January 2013 as a voluntarily counseling session opportunity for Cass County Drug Court individuals and Cass County Psychological Services clients.
Because drug users often tend to keep company with other users, it’s a difficult process for many to escape the vicious cycle of substance abuse.
That’s where working in the garden can become beneficial to individuals who have fallen and are looking to build a new way of life for themselves.
Collins, who is recovering from an addiction, has learned a set of life skills from working the garden.
“It’s been a big help,” Collins said. “I’ve learned some new gardening tips, and they have also helped with (teaching) different ways of how to cook.”
After participating with the efforts of the garden last year, she wanted to come back again for another season.
“I don’t have a garden where I am able stay at, so I like coming here and gardening and being able to take fresh fruit and vegetables home instead of going to the store,” Collins said.
Over the summer and into fall, a handful of participants like her will come to the Extension Office every Friday from 11 a.m.-noon to work in the garden spaces, which measure 6-feet-by-8-feet.
Last summer, the garden bared more than 160 pounds of fresh produce, including various kinds of lettuces, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, cucumbers and cauliflower.
Hoffman said one of the aspects of the program is to instill the sense of teamwork to garden participants - and to help them learn how to interact with sober individuals.
Then, as the harvest season approaches, participants are then, in return, able to keep some of the produce for themselves.
Beyond the experience of nurturing a garden, participants also are able to grasp the concept of working on a project that will take several months before they will reap the benefits.
The project is supported by the Soil and Conservation district, area Master Gardeners, the city of Harrisonville, and Jeff Yearington with the Lincoln University Cooperative Extension’s Farm Outreach Program.
Master Gardener Darra Simpson, 73, was on hand to help with the garden work April 11. She also helped with a pitchfork in hand, tending to the soil. Once the dirt was ready, she helped Collins determine the best design for one of the gardening beds based on how the sun would hit the area.
“Our main focus is to teach,” Simpson said. “It’s not a perfect science - you’re depending on the weather and people.”
She said gardening can also be a holistic, good-for-the-body experience.
“Gardening is my church,” she said. “It’s where I think, it’s where I ponder, it’s where I cry, sometimes I cuss. This is where I can sit and talk to the Almighty.”
After the garden’s first year came to completion last fall, Hoffman said the program had been a success.
“Participants learned from each other and they really enjoyed completing the task,” he told Cass County Commissioners at a meeting in September. “They would say that it’s ‘their garden,’ and they took that sense of pride and ownership in the garden.”
He even added that some of the participants, as a result of the program, started small gardens at their home with their children.
Cass County Extension Office Nutrition and Health Specialist Susan Mills-Gray also took time to last year to show garden participants how to make pickles from cucumbers.
“They’re gaining skills that they can take back and utilize for themselves,” Hoffman said.
The Cass County Democrat Missourian plans to follow the garden’s progress into the fall harvest season. Watch for more stories about how others within the community are utilizing the garden in the coming months.