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Feeding Nevada County: Securing our food supply with home gardens

Rachel Berry and
Valerie Costa
Special to The Union

In this time of economic and food insecurity, gardening has become more popular than ever. Reminiscent of the Victory Gardens planted in both World Wars, people are transforming their front yards, back yards and decks into edible gardens to grow their own food. For some, the trend is a fun way to pass the time and spend time outdoors. For others, it could be a crucial lifeline that reduces their food budget. But whether they are seasoned gardeners or first time planters, people are seeing the benefits of gardening in many ways.

Budding Gardeners

“I’ve wanted to grow a garden for years, and this season it all came together,” said Mielle Chenier-Cowan Rose.  Mielle started from scratch in her partially shaded garden, and used her creativity to construct a fenced garden and raised beds using mostly recycled and reclaimed materials, including an old trampoline frame.   “I’m growing what I can, mostly greens and herbs.  We eat a lot of salad!” 

Mielle is grateful for the beauty it has brought to her yard, and seeing the enthusiasm her 11-year-old daughter has watering the plants and learning how to identify herbs by their look and smell.  ”We are local foodies, and it’s just nice to close the loop all the way around on what we eat.”

This year, as more people than ever want the security and therapeutic value of their own garden plot, local farm and garden resources have been in record-breaking demand.   Local farmers who sell veggie starts have ramped up production to meet the need, and business has been booming for garden supply stores.

But once you have everything you need, what do you do with it? For the newbies, there is help for getting started. Sierra Harvest broke ground on its 100th Sierra Gardens build in Nevada County this season, and requests keep coming in for individuals, families and groups like daycare providers and apartment complexes.  To meet the growing need, Sierra Harvest has allocated more staff to this program, started offering on-site garden consultations for those who just need some guidance, and created a Food, Farm & Garden online resource to help connect home gardeners with local suppliers during COVID-19.

“Our first year gardening we had no idea what we were doing, most of what we planted didn’t grow, or the deer ate, and despite reading gardening books and talking to people for advice, we felt lost.  Then we enrolled in Sierra Gardens, and they gave us a handful of easy, simple tips that transformed our experience from a struggling garden to being able to grow most of our own produce through the growing season,” said social technology entrepreneur Jared Krause.

Sierra Gardens is a program though Sierra Harvest that provides garden beds, fencing, irrigation, and two years of veggie starts and garden mentorship, so people can really learn what it takes to have a successful garden. Anyone can participate in this program, and scholarships are available for low-income families seeking more food security. 

“There is a huge step between not knowing what you are doing and having a handful of basic techniques and good practices” says Jared.  “It’s the difference between having a total chaotic mess and having a really wonderful garden that produces food all season. Now our garden is extremely joyful – it’s one of our favorite things to do, alone or together.”

His partner, massage therapist Nicole Stevenson, agrees that gardening has had many benefits. “For me, it’s such a stress reliever to go out into the garden and putter around,” she said.  “I don’t think that we realize how important it is to have our hands in the earth.  I look at the flowers opening, see how far the seeds has grown… it gives me mental space, its feels like a sanctuary and peaceful space.  And then you are eating the healthy food that’s right there.” 

Jared agrees that gardening has been a life saver during this difficult moment in history. “It’s been a stressful time with COVID, and having a garden to work in has been an amazing stress release, it’s immediately gratifying, and it’s a place to put my energy into something positive. And there is something about eating produce that just came out the garden, really fresh.  When I eat it, my body feels incredible.”

Master Gardeners

It’s not only the newer gardeners who are experiencing the benefits. Longtime gardeners are appreciating the many ancillary benefits of their gardens, and some are taking it to the next level. Two organizations that can help gardeners of any level are Nevada County Master Gardeners and The Society of Garden Goddesses.

Established in 2010, The Society of Garden Goddesses is a group of over 1,200 men and women who are interested in sustainable gardening practices. More than just a group of gardeners, this is a family; a “tribe” who get together in normal, non-COVID-19 times for fun events that include garden tour potlucks every month, Happy Gardening Hour taste and learn events at Weiss Brothers Nursery, holiday bazaars, volunteer projects, demos, classes, contests, world renowned guest speakers, and much more.

The Nevada County Master Gardeners is part of a state-wide organization of the University of California to assist gardeners of all levels with any questions they might have. According to the UC Master Gardener website, the Master Gardener volunteer program was started in the early 70s at the University of Washington.  Farm Advisors became overwhelmed by all the incoming calls from home gardeners and homesteaders so they trained volunteers to answer these questions and the “Master Gardener Program” was born.  The first University of California Master Gardener programs began in 1980 in Sacramento and Riverside counties.  The Nevada County Master Gardener began soon thereafter in 1983.  In 1991, they partnered with NID to develop a Demonstration Garden as a way to show and tell about good gardening practices.

The mission of University of California Master Gardener volunteers is to extend research-based gardening and composting information to the public through various educational outreach methods.  They strive to present accurate, impartial information to local gardeners so they have the knowledge to make informed gardening decisions in regard to plant choices, soil fertility, pest management, irrigation practices and more.

One of the many Master Gardener volunteers is Mona Copeland, an active member who credits her move to Nevada County with her love of gardening. Mona and her husband moved to this area from Los Angeles in 2010. They had been leading the typical urban lifestyle with demanding and stressful jobs, and moved to Nevada County with the intent of creating a more joyful life. For Mona, that included creating more self reliance and growing her own food. “I come from a long line of Canadian farmers and I wanted to feel connected to life,” she said.

Mona became a Master Gardener in 2011 and joined The Society of Garden Goddesses. She explains that the groups have worked diligently to build the soil web, which is the key to a productive garden. Her garden is more of a mini farm then a typical backyard garden, with 20 raised beds that produce food all year long. She preserves the garden’s bounty by canning, fermenting and dehydrating for yearlong consumption. Mona also makes sure to plant varieties that keep well. In addition, she saves seeds and teaches a seed saving workshop through the Nevada County Master Gardeners.

“My experience is the soil is the most important thing to have a successful garden. Adding organic matter like compost every year has made huge improvement in my garden. It’s alive with worms and mycorrhizae,” Mona said. “I am amazed at nature’s process and love assisting in it. It truly brings meaning and peace to me.”

While the Master Gardeners have temporarily suspended their public workshops due to COVID-19, they have a radio program on KNCO from 10 a.m. to noon every Saturday and there is a “Got Questions?” link on their website where you may ask your question electronically. It also allows photos, so if you have a pesky bug you need help identifying, or a mystery plant, email your question with a photo and one of the Master Gardeners will reply as soon as possible.

To learn more, or to get your questions answered, visit their website at ncmg.ucanr.org.

Or, to get hands-on help with starting your garden from professionals through Sierra Harvest’s Sierra Gardens program, visit sierraharvest.org/connect/grow-your-own-food.

To learn more about The Society of Garden Goddesses, visit gardengoddesses.org.

Rachel Berry is the engagement director at Sierra Harvest and Valerie Costa is the special sections manager at The Union.

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