When Bilhenry Walker first saw the property surrounding First Presbyterian Church a little more than two years ago, he said, “There needs to be a garden here,” recalled his wife, Kathryn Reid Walker, pastor of the Eau Claire church.
But it would take some time for the idea to sprout after the couple first planted the seed, and it did this spring when a garden was planted east of the church.
So far, about 250 pounds of produce, including eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini, have been donated to area food pantries from the plot.
While the garden has allowed the congregation to help feed hungry neighbors, the produce also has fed the congregation in more ways than one, Reid Walker said.
Her husband agreed.
“It’s really not about just planting a bunch of veggies,” said Walker, a sculptor. “It’s about cementing a congregation — from the (young ones) to the old ones — together.”
Helping the hungry
For many years, First Presbyterian Church has been involved in hunger efforts in the area. However, people in the Chippewa Valley still are food insecure.
In Wisconsin, 609,360 people are struggling with hunger, according to Feeding America, which aims to feed the country’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks. Of those, 205,660 are children.
Realizing the need for fresh produce for people who are food insecure, First Presbyterian Church expanded its mission — with the approval of the church governing body — by building a garden in front of the church, 2112 Rudolph Road.
“There are people in need, and we are happy to help them,” said Walker, who wanted the garden where it is, so people would see what was happening at the church.
“It’s another example for everybody, including churches, of what can be done to help,” he said.
The JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope) Core Team at First Presbyterian, of which Walker is a member, agreed to take on the responsibility of planning and executing the design, followed by the planting, watering and weeding.
“But virtually everyone in the church has contributed to the project,” said Walker, noting “some of the older folks gave me some really good advice.”
Members of the congregation, including the Presbyterian Women, stepped up to help get the garden in the ground by donating manpower, materials, like tomato cages, money and seeds, Reid Walker said.
In spring, children planted seeds in containers, which were later transplanted into the garden. In addition, confirmation students got involved in building raised beds.
The garden, surrounded by an 8-foot fence to keep out deer and rabbits, is 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep, according to the church newsletter, The Bellwether. It has seven 5-by-10-foot raised beds for vegetables. Two are home to 28 tomato plants, and the rest are planted with cantaloupe and an assortment of vegetables, including beans, broccoli, kale and Swiss chard. (A winter crop of other produce like beets, carrots and radishes is planned,” Walker said.)
The garden also has four 3-by-3-foot corner beds for flowers, and its perimeter was seeded in wildflowers and milkweed to create a monarch habitat.
Lending a hand
“It was so fun to see all of the different age ranges involved in this project,” Reid Walker said.
John Wagner and his wife, Sue, volunteered for the garden project, which is completely organic.
“We’re trying to get the church involved in more outreach activities, and for us, this seemed like a good one to be involved in,” said Wagner, explaining that he and his wife, who live south of Eau Claire, have gardening experience.
The Wagners felt the project has been worthwhile.
“We thought it would bring the church people closer together, and I think it’s done that,” John Wagner said.
Reid Walker agreed, and she has one other hope for the project.
When she and her husband moved to the Chippewa Valley from Milwaukee and Reid Walker introduced herself around town, she kept hearing similar sentiments from people.
“We were known as the church with the sign,” she said, chuckling. “Now, we can be the church with the garden.”
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