GREENFIELD — About 10 years ago, a few friends at Faith Lutheran Church looked at the grassy area behind the church building and thought it could be something more.
“We had three acres back there,” said church member Mike Schildmier. “We were either paying somebody to mow it or had to mow it.”
What the friends envisioned instead was a garden. Mary Lou Trees admits that first attempt was “kind of pitiful,” really just a row of tomatoes coupled with some cucumbers grown by her daughter, church secretary Mary Jo McConnell — some of the best cucumbers Trees has eaten.
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But the garden plot, later dubbed the “Garden of Eat’n,” would expand from that starting point — in rows planted, variety of vegetables grown and number of people fed.
These days, a couple of acres north of the church annually bear cabbage, green beans, tomatoes, lots of sweet corn, and other plantings that may change from year to year. This year’s garden includes lima beans, beets, kale, cabbages, onions, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, zucchini and more than 50 tomato plants.
Other churches also have dug up part of their land for gardens. Last year New Hope Church of the Nazarene east of Greenfield offered 20-by-20-foot garden plots to community members, encouraging growers to donate a portion of their produce to service organizations.
Members of St. John United Church of Christ tend a few garden plots at their church in the Cumberland area. Delores Davis, 77, of Greenfield said church members wanted to start a garden, so she jumped in and is part of it. A church member plows the field for the group in the spring.
Davis plants a few vegetables to use for her own family’s Thanksgiving meal. She rents the church building for the day and prepares the family meal there because their home in Greenfield is too small, she said.
Another woman at the church plants corn to sell as decoration in their fall festival.
At Faith Lutheran, members may grow a parcel for their own use, but much of the acreage is for growing food that is shared with the congregation and with organizations feeding the hungry.
Those who tend the garden try to pick the produce on Saturdays so it’s fresh for the congregation Sunday morning. A couple of tables inside hold crates filled with ears of corn lined up in a row, piles of green bell peppers, heads of cabbage and other vegetables.
Members who take some of the vegetables home make a donation, which helps buy seed for the next garden. Occasionally a local business donates plants as well.
The gardeners also take vegetables to Hancock County Food Pantry and Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen.
Tom Ferguson, president of Hancock County Food Pantry, said the church has over the years provided a significant amount of fresh garden produce, such as a pickup truck full of sweet corn.
“This allows our shoppers access to fresh garden produce and even enough to freeze for future use,” he wrote in an email to the Daily Reporter.
Jill Ebbert, executive director of Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen, said her organization has also benefited from Faith Lutheran’s bounty, which yields fresh produce and herbs for the kitchen. The herbs are dried for seasoning, tomatoes are made into juice for soups, and corn, onions and peppers are frozen. Relish and salsa also are made at the soup kitchen from the harvest.
“We are very grateful to get the produce because fresh is always nutritionally better than frozen or canned,” Ebbert wrote in an email to the Daily Reporter. “Most of the time, enough produce comes in to also give some to the patrons to take home. Faith Lutheran Church is indeed a great blessing to us.”
Grateful for that gift of fresh produce, volunteers from the soup kitchen helped church members pick green beans last summer. Their labor was welcomed by the gardeners at the church, who range in age from their sixties to their nineties.
“It’s an old group out there, but we love it,” said Trees, 93. She remembers helping tend the family garden and fruit trees as she was growing up in Fortville. These days she grows some tomatoes at the church for her own canning but mostly gardens there for others, finding her garden work to be a way to give even if she doesn’t have a lot of money to donate.
“I just like to go down there and work when I can,” she said. “You feel like you’re helping people — that’s the main thing.”
Schildmier, regarded by many of the garden crew as its core, works the land each year, getting it ready for planting. In his mid 60s, he’s one of the younger gardeners.
“We’re just kind of doing it for fun,” he said. “As of right now, we enjoy it.”
Still, planting, weeding and picking everything is a big job. He says they’re trying to recruit some younger garden assistants to join the effort and share that enjoyment.
“We’re recruiting new people. We’ve got a few. We need more,” said Phyllis Kingen.
“It’s very enjoyable work … It’s just kind of evolved from a little thing. We just need to keep it going.”
Find out more about helping out at Faith Lutheran Church’s garden by calling the church at 317-462-4609.