I spent part of the morning Wednesday with members of the Cedar Rapids Garden Club as they planted tomatoes, peppers, zinnias and basil outside the Cedar Rapids Central Fire Station.
The club started this kitchen garden for the station last year, so the firefighters would have some fresh produce for the meals they cook while on duty. Once a week all summer, a club member checks on the plants, making sure they are weeded and watered.
A few seedlings, supported by good Iowa soil and some basic maintenance, may seem like a small thing. But I think, as is often the case with small things, the result of what those plants can achieve is greater than the sum of their parts.
There are the obvious benefits: a garden provides fresh, good food for humans, and the flowers help bees and butterflies and other creatures thrive. They’re beautiful to look at, too, and there is scientific backing for their boons. Scientists have found evidence that spending time outdoors and working in the soil can reduce stress and depression.
Of course, any gardener could tell you that.
“I love just being outside, and watching things grow, the whole process, seed to fruit,” said Garden Club member Kathy Brown. “Gardening is just a spiritual thing for me. It’s connecting with Mother Nature. It’s therapy.”
That’s what I told myself after I loaded up on plants at the Indian Creek Nature Center, Matthew 25 and Master Gardener plant sales over the last few weekends. These herbs and flowers and cucumbers and peppers were more than a few spindly plants in small plastic pots. They were investments in a summer’s worth of health and happiness.
Longer than a summer’s worth actually; I’m still finishing off the last of the tomato sauce I froze from last year’s harvest. And watching the perennials I planted last year start putting out leaves and buds again this spring was one of the most welcome signs the long winter finally was breaking.
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As a reporter who often covers both gardens and community nonprofits, I similarly love hearing from groups like the Cedar Rapids Garden Club when spring comes around. Founded in 1927, the club is dedicated to promoting a love of gardening through education and public beautification projects. Their efforts include flower planters at Greene Square, the winter garden inside the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art lobby and the green roof on the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library, among other things.
Garden Club president Hilery Livengood, a former Gazette employee, said gardening connects her to the past.
“I think of what my grandmothers used to do ... Seeds are these connections, stretching back through history,” she said. “You think of the days when you used to grow things you couldn’t find at the grocery store.”
That’s still the case, sometimes. I love browsing the pages of a catalog from Decorah-based Seeds Savers Exchange, where hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes and potatoes and beans and radishes and a dozen other types of vegetables are preserved.
Trying a deeply flavored Cherokee purple tomato, fresh from the vine, is nothing like biting into a pale imported grocery store tomato in the middle of January.
Not everyone has the time or desire to garden, of course. One of the joys of a public garden is that, even if you’ve never picked up a trowel, you can still benefit from what groups like the Garden Club, or Project GREEN and Backyard Abundance in Iowa City, or the Master Gardeners programs around the state, along with numerous other organizations big and small, are growing.
“I love the beautification we’re able to add to the city,” Garden Club member Suzanne Barnes said. “It’s wonderful to see people — and especially children — enjoying the things we plant.”
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