Since its inception in 2013, the Sierra Gardens Program has supported thousands of community members in having access to fresh food and eating more vegetables in western Nevada County. This August marks the 100th installation of these popular vegetable gardens into backyards and local institutions.
“This is so wonderful, I wanted a garden for so long… I keep getting happy tears!” Suzanne Koliche had always wanted a veggie garden like her grandmother’s, where she could experience the uplifting energy of a natural sanctuary and pick her own fresh, delicious food. This month, her dream came true when she and her husband David McKay enrolled in the Sierra Gardens program and their home became the 100th garden site built by Sierra Harvest.
The Sierra Gardens team has been building veggie gardens and mentoring community members in how to grow their own fresh, organic food since 2013. “I love the variety among all the garden sites” says Edy Cassell, Sierra Gardens Manager since 2016. Sierra Gardens have been built in tiny backyards in downtown Grass Valley, rustic properties far away from any grocery store, shared gardens at senior housing, Habitat for Humanity homes, as well as various institutional gardens. About 85% of the gardens have been installed at a reduced cost, making it possible for people across a broad economic spectrum to benefit from this program.
“This summer was the perfect opportunity” explained Suzanne, as she delivered tall glasses of cold lemonade to a group of hard-working volunteers building beds and digging fence posts in her yard. “With COVID, I ended up having the time and energy for a garden, and I could use my stimulus check to pay for it”.
Suzanne is not alone. Since COVID, the Sierra Gardens Program has been busier than ever, as more people realize the value of growing their own nutritious food. “There is no way we could have built 100 gardens without our solid team of ‘Old Faithful’ volunteers” says Edy, pointing to the enthusiastic group that keeps working on the fence posts despite her repeated calls for well.” The crew’s nicknames — ‘Gate Master Larry’, ‘Side Hill Matt’, and ‘Heart Love Christian’ — reflect their expertise and passion for the work.
“Helping other people get gardens is good for me,” says ‘Side Hill’ Matt Marquet. “It’s great exercise, too.”
‘Farmer Bri’ — aka Brianna Abundiz, a Sierra Harvest staff member who has been teaching kids and adults how to grow food for many years – reflects, “There is so much appreciation from the Sierra Gardens participants… I still see Trisha (a Sierra Garden participant from 2013), and its heartwarming to see her garden grow over the years. Sometimes on home garden builds, I will recognize the kids from a farm field trip or a school garden, and it’s so great to see it come full circle.”
As community reliance on food assistance programs has surged in 2020, and is expected to continue while social distancing measures are still in place, the Sierra Gardens programs plays an important role in helping families gain access to fresh, healthy food. Last year, 100% of Sierra Gardens participants and their children ate more vegetables than before their gardens were installed, 43% fewer participants used a food pantry, and 92% shared excess veggies with their neighbors. In addition to the benefits of a healthy food source, after experiencing a home veggie garden, 100% more participants strongly agreed that they feel happier and more satisfied with their lives.
During these stressful times, gardening can provide food security, access to nutrient dense food, as well as calming the spirit. As Suzanne thinks about what it will be like to have a garden this summer, she looks forward to what it can bring to her plate, as well as to her sense of well-being. “I think being in touch with the earth, through the garden, is like a natural compost system for negative emotions”.
Those who are interested in learning more about the Sierra Gardens services, pricing and scholarships are encouraged to visit https://sierraharvest.org/connect/grow-your-own-food/ for more details.