Marble Falls Helping Center garden takes its message, mission international

PHOTO: Members of the Highland Lakes Master Gardeners celebrate the recent award from the International Master Gardeners Association honoring the Marble Falls Helping Center garden for community service. The garden, which produces fresh vegetables for the local food pantry, earned second in the community service category. Highland Lakes Master Gardeners enjoying the honor include M.J. Hansen (back row, left), Molly Dutch, Ben Kowing, Bob Morley, Karen Wilkens, Paula Montandon, Pete Smith (front row, left), Carol Kowing, Carolyn Kennedy and Beth Mortenson. Courtesy photo

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — Though the Highland Lakes Master Gardeners community garden is only in its third year, the cornucopia of fresh vegetables recently earned international acclaim.

“This is so exciting,” said Karen Wilkens, a Highland Lakes Master Gardeners member. “We’ve taken this little garden, and, I think, not only made an impact on our local community but showed how other people could do the same thing.”The International Master Gardeners Association awarded the Marble Falls Helping Center garden second place in the Search for Excellence for 2012. The garden, located on six plots adjacent to the food pantry, earned the honor in the Community Service category.

About three years ago, Wilkens and fellow Master Gardeners Carol Kowing and Pete Smith approached the Marble Falls Helping Center board about turning a plot of land adjacent to the facility, located at 1315 Broadway St., into a garden. The idea was to donate any fresh produce to the Helping Center, where the clients could pick it up for free.

One of the problems many food pantries grapple with is the lack of fresh produce. A garden next to the Helping Center would help alleviate part of that issue.

“The Helping Center board gave us the OK, so we took the idea back to the (Highland Lakes Master Gardeners), and they thought it was great,” Wilkens said. “While it started as a garden to provide food for the Helping Center, its role has really expanded to become educational as well.”

In the first year, the garden produced about 1,400 pounds of fresh vegetables for the Helping Center. The next year, volunteers harvested 2,900 pounds of produce. This year, the gardeners have already collected 3,600 pounds of vegetables, and the growing season isn’t over yet.

“We still have sweet potatoes and some other things left,” Wilkens said. “I suspect we’ll be at the two-ton mark when the season is done.”

Beyond growing produce for the Marble Falls Helping Center, the Highland Lakes Master Gardners use the garden as a teaching tool for the community.

Each year, the gardeners host learning events that in the past included key-hole gardening.

This unique gardening method utilizes a circular form built up, using almost any type of material, to about waist height. In the middle, the builder leaves a circular gap that drops down into the project where compost material goes while garden soil is poured in around it.

The gardener puts the plants in the key-hole garden. The plants continuously draw nutrients from the compost, allowing for a thriving garden. Because of its construction, this type of gardening reduces the amount of water needed to produce vegetables, making it an asset in semiarid and arid climates.

“We try to do at least one of those programs each year,” Wilkens said.

But the educational aspect isn’t limited to those annual events. Anybody interested in learning about gardening can volunteer at the Helping Center garden, and the Master Gardeners will share the techniques and vegetable and plant varieties that work best in the area.

“We’ve experimented with and tried different varieties (of plants), so we can show people what works best in this area,” Wilkens said. “We’re always looking for more volunteers. And we’re always glad to help people get started in gardening.”

One of the requirements of the community service award was that the project not only had to help the community but that it could be replicated. One of the hopes local organizers have is other communities or groups see the impact the Marble Falls Helping Center garden makes and transplants the concept in their area.

“We know there is one that jumped off from us in the Georgetown area,” Wilkens said. “We’re hoping and praying it will spread.”

Call Wilkens at (512) 798-3955 for more information or to get involved in the garden.

daniel@thepicayune.com