Edible Gardens Make Summer Tasty and Fun in Iowa City
When I first moved to Iowa City, I decided to try and conquer my terrible sense of direction by walking around and getting to know the area. Instead, I did what I always do. I found one path that took me from Point A to Point B, and I started taking that path every day.
Along my walk is the Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center. I first noticed the Recreation Center because I was looking for a gym to attend while living in Iowa City (I can proudly say that I’ve been to the gym a total of one time.) But, I was more intrigued by the garden attached to the side of the building.
Normally I would ask someone about the garden, receive a short explanation, nod my head and go on my way. But, this summer I am a Blue Planet Green Living intern. I get to satisfy my curiosity by being a journalist. So, last Wednesday Hayley Noneman, a summer intern with Iowa City Parks and Recreation, took me on a tour of Parks and Recreation’s garden projects.
The Children’s Discovery Garden
Hayley begins the tour with the project that first caught my eye: the Children’s Discovery Garden.
The garden covers a narrow strip of grass between the Recreation Center and College Street. Last summer, Iowa City Parks and Recreation and Backyard Abundance began to redesign this tiny space. This summer they completed the project.
The garden is split into several sections, each with a different theme. The first contains a small wooden table covered with dirt and little wooden tools. A sign tells children to “create art.”
Just past the art table, sturdy logs of different heights are there for children to “climb.” And, most impressive, four flowerbeds in the middle of the garden ask children to “plant.” While none of the signs say, “eat,” Hayley tells me that the kids are free to taste any of the vegetables growing in the beds.
The purpose behind the garden is simple: Get kids to play outside.
“Teaching kids to play in the dirt sounds kind of strange,” explains Hayley. “But when you think about it, a lot of kids have never gotten their hands dirty, playing in the dirt. A lot of kids have no idea where fruits and vegetables come from.”
The Children’s Discovery Garden recently became a certified Nature Explore Classroom. This means that the garden meets several requirements.
First, Nature Explore expects certified outdoor classrooms to include certain play areas. The plant station, art table, and climbing area that Hayley showed me are Nature Explore requisites.
Next, each area must be visible at all times and clearly marked, hence the signs. And, finally, all the building materials in the garden must be natural, durable, and low-maintenance. The end result is a beautiful garden that is open to all members of the community.
Community Garden Plots
When Hayley told me that we’d also be touring Wetherby Park, I had no idea what I was getting into. The drive from the Recreation Center to Wetherby takes about ten minutes, and from a distance it looks like any other park. It doesn’t take long to realize that Wetherby is very different.
Veering left out of the parking lot, Hayley leads me to a pair of raised flowerbeds. Most of the park visitors ignore the beds, but Hayley tells me that if I stopped by on a Wednesday night, they’d be the center of attention.
“This summer we started an adaptive gardening program for people with disabilities,” she explains. “We have different arts and crafts for them to work on, and the flowers that are in the herb garden area are geared specifically towards attracting butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.”
A sign decorating one of the flowerbeds bears the phrase, “Grow Your Park.” Grow Your Park is a $10,000 grant that the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) awards to carefully selected groups. This year, only ten organizations in the US received this grant.
Iowa City Parks and Recreation is using the grant to fund the garden projects at Wetherby. The flowerbeds were modified to be handicap accessible using money from the grant.
Hayley leads me up the little hill behind the raised beds, and into an older project. A huge garden dominates this part of the park. Moving closer, I see that the garden is actually several smaller gardens, sectioned off by chicken-wire fences.
These garden plots are amazing. A woman works in a plot containing lettuce at the far-left end. And, the plots in front of us are filled with flourishing herbs and plants. Even more remarkable is that these gardens are available to the public.
“You can rent the Community Garden Plots through the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department at fifteen dollars for the entire gardening season,” Hayley explains. “It’s just like having a garden for yourself, but instead of your backyard it’s out at a park.”
The Community Garden Plots were first planted in 1981, and were initially located at Napoleon Park on South Gilbert Street. In 1987, the number of plots was reduced from 72 to 42, and in 1995, they moved to their current location at Wetherby. Today, 78 garden plots are available for rent.
Edible Garden Maze
Hayley leads me away from the community plot, around the back of the playground, and over to a small patch of sheet-mulched earth. Scattered throughout the patch are various plants, and wooden pegs mark out a path. This is another project funded by the Grow Your Park grant: the Edible Garden Maze.
The idea behind the maze is that children who plant and harvest healthy foods are more likely to eat healthy foods. Right now the plants are teeny – most don’t come higher than my ankles – but eventually children will be able to walk through the rows of fruit and nut-bearing perennials and eat the fresh produce.
Hayley tells me that the maze was designed by Fred Meyer and Backyard Abundance. But, two forces were behind the physical construction of the Maze: AmeriCorps, and an event called Community Build.
“AmeriCorps did so much that it’s hard to describe everything they did for Parks and Recreation,” she explains. “They planted and sheet-mulched the gardens. And they replaced the tops of the raised beds to make them more handicap accessible.”
On Community Build days, community members of all ages come to the park and work on the garden. Parks and Recreation hosted a Community Build in June, and participants planted the raised beds and laid out the paths for the Edible Maze. Now, contributors come back and nibble on the vegetables they planted.
Upcoming Events and Workshops
Iowa City Parks and Recreation is planning several events for the Fall. On August 4th from 5 to 9 p.m., they’ll hold a Garden Showcase.
“The Garden Showcase will promote gardening education and show that gardening is fun. We’re going to have live music, a variety of arts and crafts, tours of the gardens, different speakers, a play-in-the-mud area for kids, and different local fruits and vegetables for them to eat.”
The Garden Showcase is open to all ages. If you haven’t seen the plots at Wetherby, they’re well worth seeing. Or, if you run a childcare group and are interested in taking your kids to the Discovery Garden, schedule a time with Parks and Recreation.
In addition to the Showcase, Parks and Recreation will host four events this fall:
Autumn Adventures, Sept 25 at Wetherby
- Kids can experience the autumn season with art and science projects
- Collect acorns, make leaf prints, and eat healthy snacks
Fit Kids, Oct 16 at Wetherby
- Explore the Edible Garden Maze
- Learn about healthy food, exercise, and gardening
- Learn new recipes
Follow Your Senses! Oct 30 at Children’s Discovery Garden
- Explore the Discovery Garden
- Do art projects
- Add your art to the garden
Winter Wonders, Nov 13 at Children’s Discovery Garden
- See the Discovery Garden during the colder season
- Play games and do experiments to learn about winter, and how to stay safe and healthy in the cold
The workshops take place from 2-4 PM. Preregister by calling Joyce Carroll at 356-5100.
Iowa City Parks and Recreation has created wonderful, natural spaces for children to play and learn. Attending events and workshops is a great way to get involved. You won’t regret getting a taste of these garden projects.