Reap Many Benefits of Community Gardens in Stafford

Apr 19, 2017
File Photo by: David Biggy

With Earth Day coming up and summer right around the corner, what better way to celebrate the beauty of the Earth and warmer weather than to visit, or even volunteer at, a local community garden? Two particular gardens in Stafford Township are flourishing with the help of gardening enthusiasts. With benefits such as networking, helping other people and even gathering fruits and vegetables to take home, there’s really no downside to gardening.

The Manahawkin Community Garden on Bay Avenue is in its second full year at Manahawkin Lake. Under the direction of Reynolds Landscaping, and benefiting the Hunger Foundation of Southern Ocean, the garden produces not only vegetables and fruits for the community, but also events, activities and social gatherings for members of the community, such as yoga classes on Sundays and Tuesdays (starting in June) and story time for children.

None of this is possible without the help of volunteers from the community. “We’ve had some people who have been really instrumental in helping us,” Peg Reynolds of Reynolds Landscaping explained. “But it’s something we really need help with.”

With the community garden, volunteers come and are able to work on the garden leisurely. They are able to receive vegetables in exchange for their work, regardless of the job they choose to help with. Other than gardeners, the community garden is in need of volunteers for a variety of activities, including woodworking, story time and public speaking, during the summer – about gardening, the bee population or anything else involving the environment.

The benefits of volunteering don’t end with vegetables. The garden attracts different people, and there is always an opportunity for networking with the other volunteers. Giving back in free time is also rewarding in itself. Like elsewhere, Southern Ocean County experiences a hunger problem, and basic food needs might not always be met.

The Hunger Foundation of Southern Ocean is a nonprofit organization located in Manahawkin. Donating to eight different food pantries from Forked River to Tuckerton, so far the foundation has donated over $800,000 to these pantries since 1995 and strives to educate the public on basic food needs and hunger issues in the community.

While the community garden at Manahawkin Lake does not donate the food grown to the Hunger Foundation, it does raise money for the cause. For instance, yoga classes in the garden, while technically free of charge, are offered for a suggested donation of $5. Volunteers at the garden keep up to date on community gatherings and events and help raise money for the foundation.

“It’s so rewarding knowing that you’re helping other people. It’s so relaxing,” Reynolds said about working in the garden. Volunteers don’t need to devote a whole day to the garden to reap the benefits. Whether it’s watering, planting a couple of plants or weeding, the garden is always accepting of new volunteers, regardless of the time they can spend. “Even if it’s one or two hours a week,” she said.

For Earth Day, Reynolds is giving away one free plant to everyone, as well as raffling off a tree. “We’re trying to promote people planting trees for Earth Day.”

When asked about future plans for the community garden, Reynolds said, “We want to make it better, not bigger.” The best way to get involved is through Facebook (search Stafford Community Garden at Manahawkin Lake), or by visiting Reynolds Landscaping, Garden Shop and Garden Center on East Bay Avenue in Manahawkin.

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The community garden on Mill Creek Road in the Beach Haven West section of Stafford, while somewhat young, is lively. When Robert “Farmer Bob” Walker of Surf City first started at the Mill Creek Garden, there were only two plant beds. The garden was first established with those two planters 15 years ago. Now, the garden has eight beds, a greenhouse, a tool shed and a compost pile and is starting to see its first blooms on the fruit trees. Most of the equipment used at the garden has been recycled or bought by Stafford Township. The insecticides used at the garden are organic and not harmful to the environment.

Located by the park and water tower on Mill Creek Road, the community garden is handled and cared for by volunteers in the community. Volunteers are able to take vegetables, fruits or herbs from the garden when they need it. There are no specific plots for individuals – everyone works together and everyone shares.

All seven days of the week, Farmer Bob can be found at the garden. He has also received approval to maintain the island surrounding the garden to enhance the image of the garden. “A farmer works 12 months of the year, and it takes a lot of preparation to get it where this is,” Walker said of the garden, which is up and running all year long, varying in vegetables and herbs throughout the year.

Everything and everyone at the garden has its place, he explained. At Mill Creek, many volunteers are consistent. In the last year, Walker and his fellow volunteers have put in great effort to establish and improve the garden. The fence that was just recently put up around the garden was received at a discount. “I’ve been volunteering for 15 years. I know how to work it. I know how to get bargains and everything,” he said. The garden has its own bank account, too, where funds are added to maintain and enhance it.

There are many benefits, besides produce, to volunteering. “It gives a lot of camaraderie to the people,” Walker said. “People love to get involved.” Along with a sense of community, there’s a health aspect, too. The volunteers stay active and are social with each other. While most of those who volunteer at this garden are seniors, it’s not just for them. Volunteers of all ages are accepted to help with the Mill Creek garden, and Walker encourages it.

Eventually, he would like to see the garden be self-sustaining financially. After the volunteers get their share, the excess produce is sold to visitors in the park. All proceeds go directly back to the garden. “They will buy seeds, fertilizer, insecticides and different things we need here in the garden,” Walker explained. “Eventually, there won’t be maintenance type of things we don’t need to buy again.”

To get involved at the Mill Creek garden, just stop by. Most volunteers are aware of it due to word of mouth, while others have just walked by and noticed it. Those who are unable to donate time to the project may still want to donate recycled material for the compost pile, such as coffee grounds and eggshells. To donate financially, send to – or visit – 1199 Mill Creek Rd. in Beach Haven West.

— Kimberly Bodine

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