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Volunteers work to keep food pantry stocked : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Volunteers work to keep food pantry stocked
Local residents again raising fresh produce in park behind Prairie Point Center

by Lyle R. Rolfe


If you're one of the frequent walkers, runners or bikers who use the Prairie Path Trail in Prairie Point Park in Oswego you've no doubt seen people working in a large vegetable garden along the trail.

These workers are all volunteers tending 44 raised plant beds in which a plethora of vegetables are being grown for donation to the Kendall County Food Pantry in Yorkville.

The Oswegoland Park District started the gardens about eight years ago on land they own. After tending them for about three years, Dave Margolis, naturalist for the Park District, invited volunteers to help.

Oswego resident Chris Dombkowski said she saw Margolis' call for volunteers in the Ledger-Sentinel and she decided to call her good friend Carmen Rhoden, also of Oswego. Together, the two Master Gardeners became the garden's first volunteers.

Dombkowski said the garden area, located behind Prairie Point Center at Grove and Plainfield roads, is space that was too small for any other park district use, but ideal for the garden.

Vegetables growing in the garden this year include broccoli, beets, zucchini, summer squash, strawberries, radishes, tomatoes, kale, bush beans, spinach, peppers, carrots, cabbage, onions, cucumbers, melons, eggplant, lettuce, asparagus and apples.

"The park district is always looking for volunteers and this year we've gotten quite a few," Dombkowski said. "We've had from nine to 12 people working every weekend now."

By June the workers had already put in more than 200 volunteer hours.

This year's volunteers are: Chris Dombkowski, husband Kevin and daughter Laura; Jackie Berg; Carmen Rhoden and daughter Darcy; Jan Litvene; Laura Kiser and daughter Leah; Leah Pierson; Joshua and Ashley Lederman; Kornelija Veseli and daughter Iva; George Miller; and Rich Caudillo.

Dombkowski said the garden is slightly larger this year than in prior years.

"We added some side beds and a row of herbs. Dave Margolis wants to keep adding to it, but we're at the place where we can't handle much more," she said.

Last year they harvested 5,000 pounds of produce but she is hesitant to make a prediction about this year due to uncertainty over the weather.

"I'm going to predict 3,500 pounds. Last year was just an anomaly. Everything just went nuts," Dombkowski said.

"We're having a good start this year," Berg added.

"For the past three years we've been able to start the warm season crops at Schaefer Greenhouse in Montgomery and we are so appreciative of them for allowing us to do this," she said.

Dombkowski mentioned that Brett Schaefer donated the space along with the soil, and much of the work at the greenhouse. They started the plants in early April and had 40 flats all at no cost to the gardeners. After six weeks in the greenhouse the volunteers transplanted the seedlings in the outdoor garden.

Dombkowski said all the seeds they planted at Schaefer's and in the garden, were provided locally by an anonymous donor. The park district provided the pots.

"Everything is natural. No pesticides, herbicides or commercial fertilizer are used. The district, this year, added a landscape compost to enrich the soil and they have used an organic fertilizer in the past," she said.

Dombkowski credits Margolis, Clint Meyer, the park district's outdoor education coordinator and Mike Fee, the agency's operations director, for making the gardens happen.

Dombkowski said they receive many compliments from people going by on the walking trail, which runs along side the gardens. Unfortunately, this has not generated any new volunteers.

"But we gladly accept their compliments," she said.

"An English couple stopped to talk when they saw that we were growing gooseberries and an Asian couple noted that we were growing cilantro. People are aware of what we grow and are enjoying the gardens with us," she said.

By the end of June they had already harvested more than 120 pounds of vegetables, which included broccoli, lettuce, kale, spinach, strawberries, okra, and some herbs.

She said Margolis added several varieties of apples to the garden this year. The trees are unusual in that they are dwarf in size and the fruit grows on very short stems on the trunk of the tree rather than branches, making them ideal for tight areas.

Dombkowski said they don't bother the park district staff unless absolutely necessary.

"It's now our baby, but when we do need something, there's never a problem-they get it for us right away. Any little thing we want to try or thing we need, they're willing to make for us. "

She said each volunteer brings some favorite tool to the site, but the park district provides the main tools.

In addition to the constant weeding, watering was a time consuming job-about three hours each time, she said.

But this year Margolis and his crew reduced the volunteers work by adding a drip irrigation system to each bed. The entire system is fed from a large drum kept filled by park district crews and saves the volunteers about three hours work compared to hand watering.

"Now we just open a valve and forget it," she said.

Jan Lederman added that she joined the group through her stepson Josh Lederman.

"He told me there was a community garden to grow food for donating to a food pantry. It seemed like a wonderful place to spend time and energy," she said, adding that she also has learned a lot.

Kiser explained that she came originally as the chauffeur for her daughter who became interested when Margolis spoke to her freshman horticulture class at Oswego High School about the garden.

"She brought home a flyer about the program and we decided to give it a try," she said.

Leah Kiser added that she is now applying what she learned in the horticulture class to this garden

"It's fun and rewarding knowing we're helping the community," Leah said.

Students don't receive school credit for helping, but do earn community service hours for the time they volunteer.

Leah Pierson and Laura Dombkowski will be seniors at OHS in the fall.

Dombkowski said about 10 students from the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora spent time cleaning up the beds this spring before planting started.

Their youngest volunteer so far was Carmen Rhoden's 10-year-old daughter Darcy.

"Everyone who comes here enjoys it. You have to enjoy it to volunteer because it's not glamorous," Dombkowski said. "But the real reward is helping provide nourishing food for people who otherwise would not have this food."

She continued, "meeting a need for people is the real story of this garden and the need just keeps growing and growing. The way the economy is going, any one could be in need of the pantry in the future and not know it.

"At the height of the summer we can have a 500-pound week and at the end of a day all that food is gone," she said.

Dombkowski pointed out that it requires a certain personality type to enjoy volunteering and gardening. Their season starts in April and ends in October and they spend three mornings a week and add evening hours during harvest time.

At the end of a day the volunteers are hot, sweaty, itching from insect bites, and scratches from some plants.

"But this all goes away when we deliver the food to the pantry and see people who need it take advantage of it," Dombkowski said, speaking for herself and the rest of the volunteers.

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