AMES -- The garden at the heart of this Sunday's Ames Edible Garden Tour cultivates not only fresh produce, but also a remarkable relationship between an Iowa State University student group and the Ames community.
The Food at First Garden, 3526 Ontario St., will be open for public tours from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 14. This garden, which follows organic practices, is operated by the Sustainable Agriculture Student Association (SASA) and provides hundreds of pounds of produce for Food at First's free meal program and perishable food pantry.
A student-run organization of about 50 members, SASA promotes sustainable agriculture, education, outreach and improving agriculture. In February, SASA received the 2014 Live Green Award for Excellence in Sustainability from Live Green, ISU's campus-wide sustainability initiative. The award was for their service to Food at First.
"We talk about feeding the world here at ISU and there's really still a need right here in Ames," said Andrea Basche, a doctoral student in sustainable agriculture and SASA liaison to Food at First. "The reality of seeing what's happening in your own town is really powerful."
The Ames Edible Garden Tour starts at the Food at First garden because, Basche said, "SASA is hoping that visitors will not only leave feeling like they’ve learned something about gardening, but also feeling inspired for how to create change in the community."
The relationship between SASA and Food at First started in the spring of 2012 when several members helped prepare and serve one of the daily meals. At that time, the students recognized "the need to make a sustained commitment to involvement with the organization," Basche said. So they agreed to be responsible for planning, cooking and serving one meal each month.
A year later, SASA took over the 50-by-75 foot garden plot at Trinity Christian Reformed Church. Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, doctoral student in sustainable agriculture and sociology, coordinates the garden. About 40 volunteers — half from SASA and half from the community —work together to maintain the garden. During the past two summers, they've spent thousands of hours planting, weeding and harvesting.
Now, SASA donates hundreds of pounds of produce (an estimated 310 pounds so far this year) to Food at First.
The students also had their first go at preserving produce for use in winter meals. In August, about 20 volunteers processed and froze 50 gallons of squash and kale and a group processed 20 gallons of tomatoes. This year, the group helped with a new Food at First perishable food distribution center at Trinity Church. About 25 families use the satellite distribution, Basche said.
The scale of their garden and the size of the distribution "has worked out really well," Basche said. “We can usually harvest 20 or 30 heads of lettuce and some herbs for this. And the families can visit the garden while there."
Visitors to the garden Sunday will see a unique garden, not only because the produce is distributed free through Food at First, but also "because of what we grow," said Roesch-McNally.
"They will see garlic curing in our shed where we harvested the bulbs we planted last fall. We have a lot of perennials in our system including strawberries, raspberries, aronia berries and blueberries. And, we have a large herb bed that includes a very productive horseradish, walking onions and unique lovage plants," she said.
The students also will show buckwheat, one of the garden's summer cover crops, used to cool soil temperature and incorporate more organic matter into the soil, improving overall soil health and water infiltration.
"We also grow a red variety of okra that is unique in Iowa," Roesch-McNally said. "There are tomatoes, some fall squash, kale, chard, lettuce, peppers, cabbage and plenty of herbs for people to observe. And we have an abundance of sunflowers grown from seed. They provide vertical diversity, which pleases wildlife and attracts beneficial pollinators."
Eight gardens are open to the public during the 2nd annual Ames Edible Garden Tour. Each garden will be open for two hours, either from noon to 2 p.m. or 2 to 4 p.m. Visitors can learn about gardening skills, such as experimental breeding and prairie production. And demonstrations at select locations will feature beekeeping, composting and container gardening.
The garden tour is a partnership between SASA s and ISU's Master in Community and Regional Planning Club. Complete details about the tour are online at https://www.facebook.com/amesediblegardentour. A brochure and flyer are available at Wheatsfield Cooperative, 413 Northwestern Ave. Or email email@example.com.