Gardens for God: Local churches supply produce, plots for needy

Posted at 7:00 AM, May 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-14 11:29:38-04

CINCINNATI -- Gardens for God?

That’s one way at least three local churches obey Jesus’ command for believers to feed the hungry. They grow vegetables and donate the produce to local food pantries, or offer their property for cultivation.

They are Christ Lutheran Church in Colerain Township, Anderson Hills United Methodist Church in Anderson Township and Mount Washington Presbyterian Church in Mount Washington.

The Northgate Community Garden behind Christ Lutheran Church in Colerain Township has grown since this photo was taken last summer. This year, the church opened an additional 16 plots. Photo provided

More than 20 years ago, Christ Lutheran bought four acres behind the church in case of future expansion, said member Carol Berning. That never happened and the land lay vacant until 2016, when it decided to create the Northgate Community Garden there.

The church fenced in the acre that’s good for gardening, Berning said, then divided it into 40 plots of 400 square feet or 200 square feet and offered them to the community. Users paid $40 a year for 400 square feet, and $20 for 200 square feet.

“We figured if we had 10 or 15 people it would be great,” said Berning, who heads the garden committee.

But all 40 plots were taken.

Of the 40 gardeners, 28 were refugees from the Asian nation of Bhutan. There are about 15,000 Bhutanese refugees living in Cincinnati, and Christ Lutheran has been assisting them since they began arriving in 2008.

“It’s been interesting to see the Americans grow things with tomato cases and bean poles, and the Bhutanese growing much larger and taller structures made from sticks,” Berning said.

This year, the church opened an additional 16 plots and Berning expects that all will be claimed before the summer growing season.

“It’s been a huge success,” she said of the garden. “As a church, we’re really happy to have something that brings people together, gives them healthy food and makes everyone happy.”

A member of Anderson Hills United Methodist Church named Bob Drew started what would become the Bob Drew Memorial Garden in 1979 as a way to connect the inner city with the suburbs -- through produce. Initially, the garden was on part of a farm in Anderson Township, but was moved to the church property in 1982.

For most of its life, the garden has supplied produce to the Freestore Foodbank but in recent years it has supplied Inter Parish Ministry in Newtown and in Clermont County.

Harold Cook, who ran the garden for more than 30 years, estimates that more than 100,000 pounds of produce have been sent to local food banks. Its best yield was in 1991, when it produced nearly 5,700 pounds of vegetables.

Most years, it yields between a ton and a ton-and-a-half of produce, depending on the weather and on how much the deer and other animals eat, said Barbara Stross. It’s about 7,200 square feet now, smaller than it has been, and it’s not fenced in.

Stross is one of a handful of church members who keep the garden going. None of them are young, she said, but they are able to work.

Although the church has more than 1,000 members, Stross said, none of the younger members work in the garden. She doesn’t know why, but speculated that they prefer the church’s other mission projects, which might be less dirty and labor-intensive.

“I like the earth and working with my hands,” she said.

Mary Lou Harris started working with Mount Washington Presbyterian’s garden in 1996, about a year after it was created as an outreach from the church to the community. It’s a fenced-in plot of about 1,900 square feet, which in a good year yields about 200 pounds of produce.


The Mount Washington Presbyterian Church garden, shown here as it looked in 2009, yields about 200 pounds of produce in a good year. It was established in 1995. Photo provided

Those interested in tending the garden adopt a row of their own, where they grow crops and do the work of weeding and mowing, Harris said. They choose crops from a list of those preferred by patrons of the Southeast Ecumenical Ministries food pantry, where the produce is donated.

As is the case with Anderson Hills, the people who tend Mount Washington Presbyterian’s garden have been at it awhile.

Harris is 72 and she said the youngest workers are in their 50s.

But sometimes a local Cub Scout troop helps, too.

“It’s a good community effort,” she said. “People get outside, they get fresh air, they talk to other gardeners. There’s a little fellowship involved, and that time together is always well spent.”