As COVID-19 continues to create uncertainty, individuals, community groups and businesses are stepping up volunteer efforts to help those in need.
One of those efforts—a victory garden at the senior center in La Pine, Oregon—is led by South County Gardening founder and master gardener Bonny Bowens.
“We were going to spruce up a weeded area at La Pine Senior Center with flowers,” she says. “Then COVID-19 hit in March. Knowing people were losing jobs and there would be a need for food by summer, we decided we should put in a vegetable garden instead.”
La Pine Senior Center Manager Jamie Donahue was on board from the start.
“I have a black thumb,” she jokes. “But I knew if anyone could do it, the garden club could make this happen.”
This year’s crop includes broccoli, cauliflower, beans and squash. Bonny says potatoes and onions are coming soon.
The produce is used to help with the senior center’s drive-thru lunch program Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, but also for anyone who asks. Produce also is sent to the community kitchen in La Pine.
Jamie says the center—which is open to all ages—serves about 1,600 meals a month. So far, the garden has been able to supplement the meals and still provide for those who stop by to get fresh produce for home.
Bonny says the victory garden has been a great success. Her fellow gardeners and the senior center kitchen staff are already discussing plans for next growing season.
“The garden was a little late getting finished, but we went ahead and planted anyway,” Bonny says. “It’s in high production now.
“Next year, we’ll modify the vegetables to better support the senior center’s kitchen needs with things like peas, potatoes and beans.”
Local businesses and residents donated everything needed for the garden, including the seeds. Those included kale and collard greens, which Bonny says aren’t as needed for the meals.
While there have been challenges that stem from a short growing season, high altitude, noxious weeds and prairie dogs, Bonny says it has been well worth the effort. Funding the 138-foot-by-25-foot garden has been no small feat.
“The expense was the No. 1 challenge, but everyone has been so wonderful with donations,” Bonny says. “I can’t even total up the value. It’s just been a wonderful volunteer project.”
Bonny traveled to nearby towns seeking donations. She managed to get everything from compost and seeds to fencing and ground cover.
Of course, once the supplies were available, then came the task of creating the garden and growing the produce, especially in the face of COVID-19 restrictions.
“We keep work groups small and keep a distance while working,” Bonny explains. “It’s hard to wear a mask while working hard outdoors, so it’s optional when there is adequate space. Masks are available, and everyone wears a mask when going into the senior center.”
Creating and following safety procedures is a way to allow safe viewing for anyone who wants to stop by and see the garden. With towering sunflowers and other bright flowers, there is plenty to see.
Bonny hopes this project will encourage others to start their own gardens. If starting a new garden isn’t in the cards, she says South County Gardening can always use more volunteers.
For those who want to help but can’t volunteer in the victory garden, she says the group would appreciate money for next year’s seeds and compost.
While it may be difficult to grow vegetables in the region, Bonny says it’s far from impossible—as the bounty in the victory garden shows.
“When I started South County Gardening three years ago, everyone in the area thought we couldn’t grow anything since we’re in high desert—4,200 feet and very challenging weather,” she says. “I’ve been gardening more than 40 years. As I developed my own gardens here, I saw a need and started the garden group. It’s getting more popular.”
People are thrilled to learn that, yes, they can grow, Bonny says.
“It’s been quite a fun journey. They say if you can garden here, then you’re a true gardener,” Bonny adds with a laugh. “There ought to be a title beyond master gardener for out here.”
Regardless of the challenges, Bonny and Jamie see the victory garden as an opportunity for more than just food.
“The No. 1 benefit of the garden is it gets people to gather,” Jamie says. “There’s so much anyone can learn, and you’re not isolated.”
Bonny says gardening can be modified to fit anyone’s physical needs. She says it is rewarding and great for the mind, body and spirit.
“I just hope the vegetables we’re producing at the victory garden help people financially and nutritionally as much as I think it is,” Bonny says. “Gardening is like lotion for the soul—eating something you’ve grown or cutting a bouquet you’ve grown. I don’t think there’s anything much more rewarding than that.”
Bonny and South County Gardening send a special thanks to La Pine Senior Center, Rustic Woods, Deschutes Recycle, Sunriver Recycle, Sunriver Glass and Mirror, Camp Abbot Ace, La Pine Ace, Elite Landscaping, Sunrise Micro Farm, La Pine Restore and La Pine Signs.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite magazine, spotlights Heroes Among Us each month, sharing the unique stories of volunteers and difference-makers in communities across the Northwest and West. The series, which seeks to inspire community involvement, receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.