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Local garden offers learning opportunity, feeds those in need

U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsors hundreds of ‘People’s Gardens,’ including one in Lockeford

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Posted: Saturday, August 6, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 9:43 am, Mon Aug 8, 2011.

Bees buzz as they swiftly glide between red bell peppers and pumpkins. Shirley Fowler is kneeling next to the plants, grabbing one weed at a time down the long row of vegetables.

Fowler and several volunteers have dedicated dozens of hours working at the sustainable "People's Garden" in the Lockeford Plant Materials Center.

Employees at the center tend to the garden and then donate the food to the Lockeford Seventh-day Adventist Church, who distribute it to needy families in the community.

"It is good to see their faces. And I guess they haven't had anything fresh. It's been canned, so to get something like this is a real treat, and everyone is trying to be healthy," Fowler said.

One of the main goals is to get the community involved in the gardening process. School classes and community groups like 4-H, Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the USA will be able to tour the garden and help with weeding, planting and harvesting.

"Kids can name animals and plants on TV, but they don't even know what is outside their own home. Being outside and touching the soil and plants, that's real learning," technician Amy Gomez said.

The vegetable garden is part of a national effort to give people the opportunity to learn how to grow sustainable produce while also helping the community.

There are 400 People's Gardens across the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture challenged employees in 2010 to create gardens at their local USDA office or in the local communities. Since then, employees have organized 124 USDA-sponsored gardens that produce 34,000 pounds of food.

The gardens are an example of the federal government using taxpayer dollars to do something constructive and educate the next generation, said Matthew Bronson, San Joaquin regional coordinator for the Center for Land-Based Learning.

"It's a federal initiative to get not only federal employees to give back to the community, but to use the federal land and show the community some types of outreach the federal government is willing to do," Bronson said.

The Lockeford Plant Materials Center is about 100 acres of farmland that stretches along the Mokelumne River, where USDA researchers study native plants from around California.

The People's Garden is tucked into one a corner of the sprawling property, and filled with corn, squash, tomatoes, onions, carrots and zucchini.

"I wanted to grow things people can use, like corn and tomatoes. But if they have fava beans, they might not know how to cook them, so it would be a waste to grow them," Gomez said.

Gomez graduated from California State University, Sacramento recently with a degree in environmental studies, and started working for the USDA as a biological technician.

One of her main goals is to make the garden sustainable, so she has been studying different methods and then trying them out.

There are native plants surrounding the garden that attract bees. Gomez spreads hay around the plants to keep down the weeds instead of using herbicides. And she plans to do crop rotation.

The two main goals of the Lockeford garden are to educate local youths about the use of gardens and to emphasize community service with donations to the food pantry, Gomez said.

The garden is currently home to two rows of plants, but she hopes to expand it with the help of more volunteers.

She is encouraging classes and organizations to come and help tend to the existing garden, or plant their own section that the employees can take care of when the groups are not there.

"Teachers who want somewhere locally to bring their kids for hands on work or learning and to just help me pull weeds (are welcome)," Gomez said.

The opportunity to help out will hopefully educate students on where their food comes from, Fowler said.

"This is a perfect example where they can sew and harvest and manage everything in between and know exactly where their food comes from," Fowler said.

But the garden is not just geared toward students. Gomez is hoping some adult groups will also come out and tend to the plants as well.

"Maybe even senior citizens who have done something like this in the past, because I'm just learning this stuff from books, so having someone tell me what to do would be really good," Gomez said.

The Lockeford Plant Materials Center also provides tours of its 100 acres, so people can learn about the USDA's effort to study plants and focus on habitat restoration.

The center allows USDA researchers to farm a variety of native plants from around California and decide if they would be good for certain growing conditions, like landslide areas, waterways or areas susceptible to erosion.

Then the researchers send out recommendations to all of the public nurseries throughout the state so they can start stocking the plants.

Class groups and organizations can also go on tours of the whole property learning about the USDA's effort to study plants and focus on habitat restoration.

"Kids really enjoy this. It inspires students, especially female students, to realize they can be scientists too," Gomez said.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodi news.com or read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/city_buzz.

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