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Garden offers growers a local food source

Dave Barger takes a moment to harvest a few peas from his community garden plot on Monday. Barger said the community garden gives him a chance to play in the dirt each summer.

For the past dozen years, local gardeners have had space to grow fresh vegetables and flowers even when their own yards didn't have room for such activities.

That's because the St. Croix Valley Gardeners organization has been providing land in and around New Richmond for a community garden since 2000.

The current five-acre plot used for the community garden is located north of New Richmond along Highway 65, next to Garden Expressions.

Business owners Jonna and Dick Klukas offer the gardening space at no charge to the Master Gardeners group, in an effort to make fresh vegetables and flowers accessible to everyone. The Master Gardeners, in turn, charge just $30 per 20-by-20-foot plot for growers to plant, maintain and harvest whatever produce they like during the growing season.

A good chunk of the garden is also used by volunteers to grow fresh vegetables for area senior centers, county public health programs and Meals on Wheels.

"We offer it because people are then able to get fresh, local vegetables," Jonna Klukas said. "I think that's really important."

Apart from the community service effort, about 10 individuals rent plots to grow vegetables for their own use. One person rented a community garden plot to grow flowers for an upcoming wedding this summer.

For Kansas transplant Dave Barger, a four-year veteran of the garden, the plot gives him a chance to grow fresh food.

"Plus I love playing in the dirt," he added.

Initial impetus for the garden came from Chris Bethke, a St. Croix County Board member, who suggested to Diana Alfuth, University of Wisconsin-Extension horticulture educator, that such an activity would be a good idea.

The community garden was first established near the St. Croix County Health Center building in New Richmond. Connie Balow, a New Richmond area Master Gardener, worked with Alfuth and master gardeners Don Hall, Heidi Doering, Nancy Hunt and Marilyn Gorham to begin planning for the garden.

By 2001, renters joined the original group and the garden began to produce more vegetables and less weeds and grass. The renters added a flower garden as one of their plots.

New Richmond High School students added the garden as a Service Learning Day project a few years later. The service day, generally scheduled for the third week in May, gives students a chance to assist in various projects around the city of New Richmond. Between 20 and 30 students were part of this year's planting and maintenance effort at the garden.

As planning for the new four-lane Highway 64 moved forward, the garden needed to find a new location in 2006. With the offer from Garden Expressions, a new home was found.

Over the years, production in the community garden has fluctuated between 5,000 and 2,500 pounds annually.

Carolyn Barrette, master gardener who coordinates the community garden, said production is lower these days because a portion of the five acres isn't planted each year to help the soil rejuvenate.

Even with the reduced production, Barrette said the garden is an important source of health food for local people.

She said that source wouldn't be available if not for the volunteer gardeners who make it all happen. She noted that this summer students from St. Anne's School in Somerset have stepped up to help as well. They have picked vegetables the past few weeks and deleivered the produce to local senior centers and to the Grace Place homeless shelter.

For information on the garden, contact Barrette at 715-549-6438, or stop in at Garden Expressions and talk to Jonna or Dick Klukas. Renters in the New Richmond area as well as other parts of St. Croix and Polk counties have taken advantage of the opportunity to grow produce for home consumption.