Community gardens attract green thumbs

HURON TWP. On a warm summer day last year, Ron Wittmer was gardening when a sound took him by surpri
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010



On a warm summer day last year, Ron Wittmer was gardening when a sound took him by surprise.

The sound was a humming noise, and -- oddly enough -- it was coming from him.

Wittmer, 59, of Sandusky was cheerfully humming as he gardened, which was surprising because usually when he was outside on the golf course, the only noise he made was a grumbling sound.

This, Wittmer said, led to an epiphany: Gardening is therapy.

Retired now from the stressful environment of the post office, Wittmer tries to stay away from frustrating activities like golf.

But not only is gardening relaxing, Wittmer said it pays off big in the end.

He said his meals will become noticeably more delicious once it's time to harvest his plants.

Wearing a straw hat and jeans, Wittmer was out last week at Osborn Park for a therapy session -- planting tomatoes, green beans, cauliflower and other vegetables.

A member of the Men's Garden Club of Erie County, Wittmer said he's participated in the public garden program for the last four years.

Lacking sufficient growing space at home, Wittmer turned to the public garden to put his green thumb to use. Anyone can sign up for a plot.

"You've just got to not mind sweat and toil," Wittmer said. "I could spend money to join a fitness center or I can come out here and work out."

About 63 people have plots at Osborn Park this year -- more participants than any other year in recent memory. There's a waiting list full of eager would-be gardeners, hoping someone will drop out.

Wittmer thinks he knows what's causing the surge in garden popularity.

"I think the economy has a great deal to do with it," Wittmer said.

Community gardens are cropping up all across the region, and organizers said the economic downturn explains the renewed interest in agriculture.

A Nielsen Co. U.S. consumer survey found that more than half of respondents reported eating out less because of the economic downturn.

Cash-strapped residents looking for ways to shave a few dollars from their budgets find gardens a cheap alternative to commercially-bought produce.

Another Nielsen survey found sales of gardening supplies have spiked in recent months.

Lynn Chapin started a community garden in Norwalk behind the county jail.

On Saturday, Chapin and about eight others finished the digging and planting process. Now comes the tending and the weed removal.

Residents had asked Chapin to spearhead such a garden for years, but she was always too busy to give it a go.

But this year, in the wake of the recession, Chapin finally committed to the project.

While indisputably cheaper than buying produce, Chapin said most participants signed up because it allows them to grow organic vegetables, free of widespread pesticides and chemical sprays.

Organically-grown produce is also believed to be more nutritious, and some people argue it's tastier.

In Bellevue, Providence Baptist Church's "God's Community Garden" is coming along nicely, said Jackie Wynbissinger, the church member in charge of it.

Rows of corn, onions, peas, green beans, lima beans, radishes, red beets, lettuce and mustard grains were planted by about 15 people in the last week or so.

Created this year to help residents cope in this troubled economy, the community garden has attracted a different breed of gardener than expected.

"I don't think it's because of the original intent we had -- because of the economy," Wynbissinger said. "I think it's just people who want to plant a garden but don't have room at their houses."

Many of the participants are between 25-30 -- people who live in apartments, condominiums or small homes.

Regardless of the various motives for gardening, gardeners report the same pleasures from the activity.

"I like to go out, weed and do all that kind of stuff," Chapin said. "I like it because I can rest my brain."