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Master Gardeners harvest cabbages from the refurbished garden.

In the summer of 2020, as the first wave of the COVID clampdown dragged on, our shelter – and our local gardeners – couldn’t use our community garden to grow the fresh food many in the neighborhood depend on. The result: a disaster of weeds and neglect. This year, a small band of volunteers restored the garden to its former glory for our neighbors and our kitchen. They battled bugs and weeds and grew hundreds of pounds of veggies for our shelter clients to enjoy. In 2018, Penn State Master Gardeners Bill Finlay and Doug Reigle began to work with the city’s Treatment Court program, which allowed participants to plant, water, weed and harvest veggies under the master gardener’s supervision. For two years, Treatment Court participants grew tons of potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and other vegetables that went straight to the Opportunity House kitchen. (They took home a bunch, too!) Then came 2020. Our 56-plot garden turned into a jungle of wire grass, pigweed, and vines.

The one bright spot: This spring, when the COVID lockdown lifted, Eagle Scout Josh Secoges and a team of volunteers built us a new garden shed to store our tools. In April, the shed went up and Finlay, Reigle, and other master gardeners came armed with a tiller and the determination to wrestle nature back into submission. It was no easy task.“The garden was fallow for a full year,” Reigle says. “We had to till each plot, chip large branches, weed and tame the morning glories that climbed the chain-link fence around the garden.” Too much for even a group of experienced gardeners.

Enter volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Once or twice a week without fail, up to five young men of the church, known as Elders, turned over plots, pulled weeds, and composted so the gardeners in our community could once again grow fresh, healthy food. One community gardener from Kenya tends a unique species of cabbage native to her country. Others grow strawberries and tomatoes. One gardener only glorious flowers. Right now, our volunteers tend 21 beds whose bounty goes to the Opportunity House kitchen. Earlier this summer, they grew over 100 ears of sweet corn, which our clients enjoyed at an outdoor barbecue held in our garden. Despite a family of groundhogs who damaged our sweet potato beds, they’ve grown cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, regular potatoes, and other veggies for our clients. Reigle —a volunteer himself—is especially grateful for the dedicated young Elders’ assistance.

“They do yeoman work,” he says. “Without the Elders’ contributions, it would have been another lost year at the garden.” Asked why they worked so hard to restore our garden, one Elder quoted a verse from the Book of Mormon: “And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” In the elders’ honor, for ourannual community garden dinner September 9, Finlay will prepare a dish popular with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This dish is called “funeral potatoes.” Ironic, given that the Elders and experienced gardeners gave our garden new life.