How Getstarted is helping Sonoma County families grow their own food
Anyone who has grown vegetables knows how easy it is to go overboard and plant more of some things than we can possibly eat. Zucchini, we’re talking about you.
That got a pair of Petaluma gardeners to thinking. What if the zeal of backyard growers could be harnessed at the front end of the growing seasons in a way that would foster people-to-people connections in their community while providing more fresh food for neighbors who really need it?
Friends Cara Storm and Susan Duncan put their heads together and germinated a plan at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last spring. Their idea was to take a tag-team approach to growing good food. They would enlist volunteers to grow vegetable starts from seed. The tiny plants would be given to people at area food banks and pantries so they could grow their own fresh crops at home in pots or in the ground.
The pair called it Getstarted, and were ready for a fall launch, with 75 volunteers recruited to take home and grow 300 kits. Each included a six-plug planter filled with soil and a packet of seeds to grow two each of lettuce, cilantro and broccoli. They chose crops that would-be recipients said they would like to eat and which would be easy to grow with a high rate of success. Gardening expertise was not required on either end of the food chain. Their efforts were shared with some 225 families through the Petaluma Family Resource Center at McDowell Elementary School, the Salvation Army Petaluma Food Pantry and the West Side Interfaith Pantry at Elim Lutheran Church.
The effort proved to be such a success that Getstarted is returning for a new growing season. Volunteers will be given everything they need to nurture their baby plants, including access to expert advice through online video tutorials and access to food-growing specialists with the Sonoma County Master Gardeners.
It’s practically no-fail.
“You don’t have to have space,” Storm said. “You don’t have to have any space really, because the plants stay in the kits the whole time.”
Volunteers, called “starters,” plant the seeds in the prepared plugs and tend them, making sure they are kept moist and receive the right amounts of light and warmth to flourish. After a few weeks, the young starts are returned to Petaluma Bounty, a community farm that is providing space for the new program. Another crop of volunteers then takes the starts to food pantries to share with the “growers” who will take them home, grow them and eat them.
Steve Tuchband, his wife, Ingrid, and their daughter, Maya, 17, took home 10 kits last fall and found satisfaction both in learning more about growing from seed and helping others.
“The idea you’re doing something of service, as well as coming together as a family to do it, is a wonderful thing,” said Tuchband, who tends one raised bed of his own behind his small Petaluma bungalow. During the pandemic, like millions of other Americans inspired to garden, he put in two more raised beds along with irrigation.
But a volunteer grower can grow out a kit on a porch, patio or even inside the house.
Volunteering as a way of learning
Volunteer opportunities abound throughout Sonoma County to help out with various gardening projects with groups like the Sonoma Ecology Center, Daily Acts and many community gardens. Petaluma Bounty Farm, which provides hunger relief with fresh food for those who need it, also employs volunteers to help in the garden and with gleaning. Working alongside and networking with other gardeners becomes a way also to hone one’s own gardening skills.
Tuchband said he learned by volunteering with Getstarted the importance of thinning, removing some seedlings to allow stronger ones room to grow. Thinning is also a way to create more starts.
“If you have too many in there, you can split them apart and keep some of the soil so you don’t damage the roots,” he said.
Another season coming up
Storm said she expects to once again prepare and distribute at least 300 starter kits, as they did when they launched, with the aim of involving as many people as possible.
Not only is the need great, particularly during a pandemic when so many people are out of work, but it is a way to show “caring within the community from neighbors around them.”
“It’s a way for people to participate and feel like they're making a difference, very literally taking matters into their own hands. And it resonated with the food pantries because they appreciate that the community was seeing their neighbors and that people were growing something for other people within their own community,” said Storm, who works on food insecurity issues and volunteers at the Elim Church pantry.
The kits this season again will feature plants recipients said they want to eat and that do well in the local soil and climate. There will be two different kits: one with cilantro, lettuce and onions for growing in partial shade and another with cucumbers, green beans and summer squash for sunny spaces.
The program is accepting volunteers through March 31. Volunteers can sign up at getstarted.garden and arrange to pick up their kits on April 4 or 5 at Petaluma Bounty Farm. Volunteers will return their young starts on May 8 and 9.
“This is an easy way to volunteer during this time of a pandemic when people are trying to stay safe at home,” said Emma Logan, an enthusiastic gardener who helped out last year and will be working to provide education for volunteers to increase their chances of success with their seeds. “This is something I can do for my community without being out in public spaces. And it’s going directly to people in my own community.”
The Petaluma Seed Bank, Swallowtail Seeds and Friedman’s Home Improvement donated seeds and materials. Storm said she also has recruited some school garden coordinators to get kids involved in the community growing chain.
“We’re excited to be able to connect people with each other through growing food,” she said. “That’s really what it comes down to — sowing a seed grows a solution. That solution isn’t just about helping to feed people. It’s about showing we care about each other.”
You can reach staff writer Meg McConahey at email@example.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.
Features, The Press Democrat
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