It’s amazing what can happen when you combine a great idea, commitment to community, love of agriculture, fresh air, good earth, and energized volunteers. In the Cotton and Tobacco Programs, a part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, we found this to be the perfect combination to cultivate our own People’s Garden – the Cotton Patch.
The People’s Garden initiative brings USDA employees and more than 700 local and national organizations together to create community and school gardens inspiring locally-led solutions to some of the challenges facing our country – from hunger to the environment.
Here in Memphis, creating the Cotton Patch was a collaborative series of fortunate events that began when employees from our local office requested to overhaul the facility’s landscaping and create our own People’s Garden.
Keeping in mind the three main requirements to creating a People’s Garden – it must benefit the community, be a collaborative local partnership and incorporate sustainable practices – I reached out to my son’s Boy Scout Troop. The troop was looking for a service project, and I thought this might be a good fit.
Modest donations became the seed money for the supplies and planting materials. Then, we identified the Mid-South Food Bank as the beneficiary. The food bank had recently launched a fresh fruit and vegetable initiative and was excited to partner with us and receive produce from the planned Cotton Patch. We expanded the team, adding 18 volunteers from various local organizations. USDA employees and their families contributed seeds, flowers, gardening tools, and their time. Things really took off.
By July 2012, the Cotton Patch was producing vegetables in sufficient quantities to allow for weekly deliveries to the food bank. My colleague, Nikki Fowler and her 97-year old mother, Honey Locke, delivered bouquets of the garden’s roses to elderly and shut-in patients. Once the summer crops matured, the beds were re-worked and replanted with cool season crops. We also planted cotton. We’ve delivered almost 300 pounds of produce to the Mid-South Food Bank.
During the summer, we also held an open house in the Cotton Patch and took part in National Planting Day, a Keep America Beautiful initiative that celebrates the important role of native species in restoring ecological balance. We applied this principle by direct-seeding native flower species in our Japanese maple flower garden.
During our first year of the Cotton Patch, 39 exceptional volunteers contributed 125 hours of time, including 92 hours from over 20 Cotton and Tobacco Programs employees. With a core group of volunteers and some experience, the Cotton Patch team plans to improve on last season’s efforts. We already have materials to start vegetable seedlings in a hot box greenhouse and selections to include high performers for the available space, like cucumbers, zucchini, and sweet potatoes. For 2013, our goal is to grow our volunteer corps as well as produce 2,000 pounds of vegetables.
To learn more about the USDA People’s Garden initiative or to get involved, please visit the People’s Garden website here.