ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. – For the first time in eight years, community members had the opportunity to grow a garden here.
The community garden, located adjacent to the Mississippi River, was open to all eligible patrons of RIA’s Family, Morale, Welfare, and Recreation program.
“The previous location was removed in 2014 due to the new housing development on the Island. FMWR plans to keep the current location for years to come,” said Trent Mundy, chief, Business Recreation Division, FMWR. “FMWR hopes that we can continue to grow the program year after year. We have room in our current location to grow substantially.”
Emails were sent out in spring from FMWR announcing the community garden was back and open to military families as well as National Guard and Reserve Soldiers, military retirees, and Department of Defense Civilians.
The purpose of the garden is to provide a quality of life program that allows families to gather and spend quality time together, said Mundy.
The FMWR email stated: “If you are looking for a place to enjoy the outdoors and get your hands dirty, we have the place for you. Our new community gardens are located on the north side of the Island off of Blunt Road. The new and improved layout will provide you with three different garden size options, a pavilion, water source, fencing and dedicated driving path for loading and unloading.”
That grabbed the attention of 14 people who rented garden plots in the dimensions of 20 feet by 20 feet for $30, 25 by 40 for $50, and premium gardens for $70. Premium gardens are big in size, anywhere between 650 to 850 square feet, Mundy said. Prices are projected to remain the same for this upcoming 2023 season.
One of those 14 gardeners was Dawn Bergom, who is a human resources assistant here at the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center servicing Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, and is a retired Army Reservist combat medic. This was her first garden.
“I have always wanted to see if I can actually grow all of these different plants, but never had a place to start one. I finally had some extra time and took advantage of the new community garden as soon as I saw the email for the garden spaces,” she explained.
Bergom said she learned a lot about gardening from the other patrons and from Google and YouTube.
“I learned so much from the other gardeners about the importance of tilling the soil, how to reduce issues with weeds and racoons – they love sweet corn – the importance of supporting tomatoes and cucumbers and how to harvest that first zucchini,” she said.
“On my own I learned that some parts of gardening – pests and unpredictable weather – are frustrating. It is overall a very peaceful experience and there is so much joy in making a meal and realizing that you grew almost everything on your plate. I also learned that you never turn your back on a zucchini; if the growing conditions are good, they will double or triple in size overnight.”
The big payoff of a garden obviously is the free, healthy food. For Bergom, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and pickle banana peppers were the main crops this year, along with a few other items.
“I learned a lot of good recipes for the zucchini, shredded and froze some for later and gave a lot to friends and random strangers. It appears that three cherry tomato plants were a few too many so I took small buckets of them to the gym I go to and to the Lock and Dam Lounge.
“I learned how to pickle banana peppers – thanks to YouTube and googling recipes – and I put them in and on so many things; they have become a favorite in my house.”
Additionally, the pumpkins she grew will be jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween.
Besides the satisfaction of growing food to eat, Bergom said the camaraderie of fellow gardeners was also a benefit.
“Each of us have our own reasons for gardening and everyone has a different level of experience. We started off as strangers and started comparing garden notes,” she explained. “We shared produce and recipes, and worked together to figure out the best ways to repel pests. It didn't take long before we started seeing each other as friends and neighbors instead of the person in that plot.”
The growing season kicked off May 1 and will remain the same for next year, Mundy said. Likewise, Nov. 1 is the deadline for gardeners to close out their gardens for this year.
“All patrons must remove any fencing, stakes etc. [They] also must remove all grown vegetables, weeds, and mow grass down,” he said.
“FMWR hopes that everyone enjoyed the season, and we look forward to providing this program again in 2023. If participants would like to hold their plot for next season please contact Outdoor Recreation for additional details,” Mundy said.
Bergom said she will be gardening here next year and has already reserved her plot.
“Next year I am going to use the three-sisters method to plant corn, beans, and acorn squash. I am also going to block out the garden instead of using rows. One section is going to be dedicated to everbearing strawberries; they grew so well this year,” she said.
For more information call Outdoor Recreation at (309) 782-8630 or stop by Building 333 anytime Monday – Friday, 8:15 a.m. – 4 p.m. except federal holidays.
“Get out there and give it a try. You don't have to know a lot to start out with. Just be willing to learn and get your hands dirty. I went into this with a pitchfork, a few potted plants, seed packets and a desire to grow my supper. I walked away with friends, a sense of peace and accomplishment and new skills that will be mine forever and a lot of veggies,” Bergom said.