Edible Gardens Make Summer Tasty and Fun in Iowa City

Community members work on the Edible Garden Maze at Wetherby Park in Iowa City

Community members work on the Edible Garden Maze at Wetherby Park in Iowa City at the Community Build in June. Photo: Courtesy Iowa City Parks and Recreation

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

Children play in the Children's Discovery Garden at the Recreation Center in downtown Iowa City

Children play in the Children's Discovery Garden at the Recreation Center in downtown Iowa City. Photo: Alenka Figa

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.

Community members work on the community garden plots at Wetherby Park

Community members work on the community garden plots at Wetherby Park. Photo: Courtesy Iowa City Parks and Recreation

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

Iowa City community members plant the Edible Garden Maze in Wetherby Park.

Iowa City community members plant the Edible Garden Maze in Wetherby Park. Photo: Courtesy Iowa City Parks and Recreation

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.

Related Post

Backyard Abundance – Reconnecting People to Nature


Alenka Figa


Blue Planet Green Living


Backyard Abundance – Reconnecting People to Nature

Backyard Abundance visitors tour Jason Taylor’s yard, which contains a large garden bed of native prairie. Photo: Backyard Abundance

Fred Meyer isn’t a man who lets a problem stop him — not even when the problem covers the entire planet.

“Most everyone feels a desire to improve the health of our environment, but when faced with our monumental environmental problems, the task seems too large — understanding how to proceed can feel overwhelming,” Meyer writes at BackyardAbundance.org.

Because Meyer understood that feeling of powerlessness and frustration, he wanted to do something about it — not only for himself, but to help others as well.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Meyer, a fellow Iowa Citian, to tell us about Backyard Abundance, the nonprofit he modeled on the principles of permaculture. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

MEYER: I started Backyard Abundance because I saw a need in our community for a holistic view of how we could improve the health of our environment. I have always been a big tree hugger. I had been hugging the trees, picking up roadways, planting plants, and doing all that for years — even in high school.

After a while, I had to take a step back and see if what I was doing was actually making a difference. When I did, I saw that the environment was continuing to crumble all around me.

Fred Meyer, founder of Backyard Abundance, speaks to participants at a workshop. Photo: Backyard Abundance

As I researched into this more, I saw millions of people and organizations doing the exact same things that I was doing; but despite how organized and passionate we were, the environment continued to deteriorate. At best, we were slowing the acceleration of our environmental problems. But we certainly were not fixing them or reversing them.

BPGL: That must have been a pretty depressing revelation. Many people might just give up. What was your response?

MEYER: At that point, I became really frustrated. All my efforts didn’t appear to actually be doing anything. So I started talking to a lot of people. I took some classes. I read a ton of books. And I learned that one of the fundamental problems we have — one of the fundamental causes of our environmental problems — is that we are disconnected from the natural world.

If you look at enough books, and read enough articles about this problem, that pattern comes up over and over and over again. We think we’re not a part of nature. We think we’re beside it. We think we’re above it. At best, we think we are stewards of the land.

Because we don’t think we’re a part of it, we don’t think we’re a part of its cycles and its processes. We don’t think we need nature for our survival. And because we don’t think we need it, we tend to abuse it.

BPGL: How did you plan to change people’s thinking on that?

MEYER: The thing that I set about doing is trying to get a better understanding of how I personally could get a better connection to nature — to make myself feel like I’m actually part of the process.

If you ask most people if they’re an animal, they’ll probably respond, “No.” But if we’re not animals, and we’re not plants, what are we?

We are animals. We’re just like any other animal on the planet, but we have special characteristics that other animals don’t.

So I set out to understand how I could feel like I was a more integrated part of nature. I was reading a lot of books, taking a lot of classes, and, at that time, I was really getting into gardening. I ran across a concept called permaculture, which is a contraction of permanent and agriculture; or, sometimes it’s referred to as permanent culture.

BPGL: What is the philosophy behind permaculture?

MEYER: The whole idea of permaculture is to create resilient communities or resilient agriculture that is modeled after healthy ecosystems. And within it, it has several ethics: Care of people. Care of earth. Return the surplus.

Fred Meyer uses a level to find the contour of a hill for a rain garden.

Permaculture has a lot of principles and patterns that are rooted in the natural world. I started applying those principles in my own garden, just experimenting with things in my own backyard. Initially, what I was trying to do was use less water on my garden, because I didn’t want to tap our water sources to water my garden.

And through that, I started learning how to create a mini ecosystem in my backyard that was self-maintaining and provided habitat for local insects and other visiting wildlife, like birds. I love to attract birds. I created this little, resilient ecosystem in my backyard, and I started seeing that I was helping the environment — actually, directly helping it in my backyard.

BPGL: What do you mean, you were “helping the environment”?

MEYER: For example, every drop of water that falls on my property stays on my property. Most of the time, people take the water that falls on their roof, and the first thing they try to do is get it away from the house, get it out on the street as soon as possible. And that causes a lot of problems and flash flooding. That’s why the stream banks of urban streets are so undercut. The water goes up, and then it goes down, and it fluctuates really fast, undercutting the banks.

But, I was able to now hold all of that water on my property.

I did it first by pointing all my gutters into the yard, rather than into the driveway. Next, I put in swales — which are similar to rain gardens — to hold onto that water and allow it to infiltrate into the soil. This improves the health of urban streams, helps clean our groundwater, and waters my garden.

Then, I planted a lot of plants to attract birds and insects, especially bees. I started recognizing that when those insects visited my yard and fed from the nectar or the seeds that I was providing, they didn’t need to go as far to get food for themselves. That created a stronger hive or a stronger flock, and that was helping nature in some small way.

BPGL: So your mini ecosystem helps the larger ecosystem. That makes sense.

MEYER: I recognized that I was helping nature and doing this in my own backyard, and it felt really good — and empowering. I could actually help the environment in my backyard.

Liz Maas teaches people about rain gardens at a Backyard Abundance yard tour. Photo: Backyard Abundance

But the biggest thing it did for me is that I started seeing ways that I could actually improve the health of our environment in much larger ways. The patterns and principles that are rooted in nature and in permaculture scale to just about any size. So, they’ll work in a person’s backyard, but they’ll also scale to an entire park, or an entire neighborhood, or an entire city.

And those principles, because they’ve been tested for billions of years, are pretty rock solid. One of those principles is don’t pollute. Don’t create any waste that is not reused. If we did that as a society, if we composted everything — or made sure that, for everything we created, when its time span ended, it could be fed back into another process — we wouldn’t need landfills anymore.

“The Story of Stuff” is a little 20-minute video that basically shows how our entire economy is geared toward taking natural resources, processing them to create stuff, and sending them straight to the landfill. Our homes are just holding places for the stuff along its journey. Just about 95 percent of everything we create ends up in a landfill. I think, at the Johnson County [Iowa] landfill, half of everything that goes out there can be composted: wood or paper or whatever. If we just did that, it would be a phenomenal improvement. But what we have to learn to do is not allow anything to go to waste and reuse everything.

So that’s just one example of a principle that permaculture promotes. By applying those principles not just in my backyard, but city wide or country wide or community wide, I started to see ways that I could really be effective in my community at helping the environment. And it made me feel really empowered. How often does an environmentalist feel empowered when they’re faced with all these environmental problems?

Our environmental efforts have been so mediocre that we have lowered the bar to the point where we are just happy to do less harm. I learned that every plant and animal on the planet — in some way or another — creates abundance. When we follow those principles, we can go way beyond “sustainability” and create beautiful, resilient, abundant communities.

I was feeling really good, and I wanted to share this with other people. I went around in the community and talked with a lot of environmental groups. I said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea that I think is kind of intriguing.” They helped me refine it, and that’s how Backyard Abundance was born.

BPGL: What does Backyard Abundance do?

MEYER: Backyard Abundance’s mission is to connect people to the natural world by teaching them ecological skills that enable them to create beautiful, resilient communities and landscapes.

It’s not just landscapes we’re creating here, although it’s one of the things permaculture is good at. These patterns and principles apply to communities as well.

Pete Flynn teaches people how to start a new garden bed at a Backyard Abundance workshop. Photo: Backyard Abundance

All these things are modeled after healthy ecosystems. And when we look at a healthy ecosystem, it doesn’t have a landfill sitting off to the side. It doesn’t import chemical fertilizers and pesticides to take care of itself. It doesn’t need to dig up fossil fuels to provide energy for itself.

Someway, somehow, these healthy ecosystems, and these billions of organisms that provide habitat for them, have been doing so for millions of years, all just on the energy of the sun. So when we model our communities and our agricultural practices after those same processes, we will yield the same benefits with much less energy.

BPGL: What types of workshops do you offer?

MEYER: This will be our fifth year. Our mainstay event has been yard tours. We find people in the community who have consciously designed their yards to benefit not only themselves, but the environment. Then we open up that yard to the public for a couple of hours and allow them to funnel through, get ideas, talk with the homeowners. And we typically invite experts to talk about the features of the yard. We usually hold anywhere from four to six yard tours every year. They have been very popular — between 50–100 people show up at each event.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been gradually moving from this passive education to more direct education — how to actually implement the features that we see in these yards. We held a workshop to show people how to plant a prairie garden and have a patch of water-cleaning, insect-feeding prairie in their yard. We held an event to teach people about rain gardens and rain barrels. We taught people how to easily start a new garden bed. And, just last summer, we showed people how to look at a landscape and figure out how to design it based on their goals and the characteristics of the landscape.

BPGL: What classes do you have coming in the near future?

MEYER: 2010 represents a defining moment in our history. We’re becoming more of an education organization. So we’re going to launch a series of six classes called “Create Abundant Landscapes.” Classes will begin in April and will be held on the weekends. We’ll teach people how to implement really resilient, beautiful landscapes that require very little energy, are self maintaining, and help the environment as well as the people who are managing them.

Molly Martlin teaches people how to design a garden beds to be self-maintaining. Photo: Backyard Abundance

Two things make these classes unique. First, we will be using the people’s personal landscapes as examples throughout all the activities and classes. The classes won’t be abstract. Participants will actually be using their own landscapes so that they will have something to take home and put to use right away.

The other thing that makes it really unique — and this is the thing that excites me the most — is it’s not just about landscaping; it’s about learning about nature and feeling like we’re a beneficial part of the natural world. When we design these landscapes, we design them with that connection in mind.

We are a working, functioning part of the system that we’re designing. We’re not just putting a patio in the backyard or planting a tree.

We’re not creating garden beds that mimic our industrialized agriculture system, which requires massive amounts of physical and fossil fuel energy to maintain it. We’re creating a healthy ecological systems of which we are a functional part. As people go through this process, they’ll start learning that they are a part of the natural world, because they’re designing a landscape that makes them feel connected to nature.

And as I pointed out when I started talking about this, that is one of the fundamental difficulties in solving our environmental problems: We don’t think we’re a part of nature. By showing people that we’re a part of the natural world, we inherently start solving that problem. We not only see that we need healthy ecosystems to survive, but we also see that nature provides solutions to many other problems our culture experiences.

In “Create Abundant Landscapes,” we’ll learn how to work with nature, rather than against it. We’ll learn these patterns and see how to upwardly scale them to create resilient communities that are run off the power of the sun and produce no waste. And we’ll find fulfillment in the beneficial connections we experience with nature and with our community because we will see the beneficial role our landscape and our efforts play in a much larger whole.

BPGL: What other activities do you have planned for your launch?

MEYER: We’re going to launch “Create Abundant Landscapes” in April. We have invited nationally acclaimed ecological designer Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens, to give a presentation and a workshop in Iowa City March 12–14.

Jacke’s book contains pretty much everything I’ve been talking about. It’s a how-to manual: how to create resilient communities and landscapes that are modeled off of healthy ecosystems.

Leading up to that, we’re holding a series of events called “The Seeds of Sustainability.” There will be two or three events every month starting next week until the mid March event. Film screenings, presentations, a book reading, a seed swap — it will be a lot of fun.

These events will talk about exactly what we’re doing in the “Create Abundant Landscapes” curriculum. It’s a lead-up to the kick off our classes.

Backyard Abundance screens a film and provides an educational session about choosing environmentally-friendly plants. Photo: Backyard Abundance

BPGL: What do you see as the greatest benefit of the new curriculum?

MEYER: A lot of people feel very helpless, not only in helping our environment, but just improving our culture. We have an economy that doesn’t seem to be working for us, an agriculture that requires tons of energy, a transportation system that pollutes everything, and an environment that is crumbling. People do not feel like they can help any of those problems.

Our classes are focused on showing folks how they can help those larger problems by learning the patterns and principles in nature and by applying them in their own backyards. It’s really about feeling empowered, feeling like we’re a part of our community, a part of something larger than ourselves.

For More Information

The calendar pages on the Backyard Abundance website provide a complete listing of upcoming Backyard Abundance events.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)