If you think backyard gardening is a woman's pursuit, think again.
At the Congregation Or Shalom in Vernon Hills, it is members of the Men's Club who have organized a garden, and already they are seeing the fruits of their labor.
"The temple is always looking for social action projects," says John Katz-Mariani of Vernon Hills, who leads the project. "We were aware that food pantries often need fresh food to supplement their nonperishables."
As luck would have it, the congregation had enough land behind its church to develop the garden. Club members drew the support of the Home Depot in Vernon Hills and manager Barry Zinke, who supplied the group with wood, tools and even a rain barrel to help collect rainwater and its natural nutrients.
The men started digging on May 1 as part of the congregation's Mitzvah Day, when families sign up for a variety of different service projects throughout surrounding Lake County communities.
According to its website, "Mitzvah Day embraces the full meaning of community." The temple invited members to come and socialize and make a positive impact on the congregation and the community.
Starting the garden definitely achieved that, Katz-Mariani said. Now, they all refer to it as their Mitzvah garden.
"About 15 members of the temple volunteer in the garden's care," he says. "We take weekly shifts and many of our volunteers are children."
They worked with a master gardener to learn more about raising a hearty crop of vegetables, and in the end decided to stay relatively conservative in their planting, since it was a new venture for all of them.
Their garden includes tomato plants, different varieties of peppers, eggplant, summer squash, carrots, melons, peas and beans. During their first harvest, they collected radishes and bok choy, a type of Chinese cabbage.
While the weather has challenged these novice gardeners -- with the rainy weather in May and the extreme heat and storms in July -- they still have managed to harvest enough produce to contribute to a pair of Lake County food pantries.
The majority of their produce so far has gone to COOL food pantry in Waukegan, while they also have contributed to PLAN, or the People Lending Assistance Network in Round Lake.
At COOL, or Christian Outreach of Lutherans, the pantry feeds about 2,500 people per month, but it saw an even higher demand in July because of the power outages, coordinator Amber Abbott said.
"A lot of these people can't afford fresh produce," Abbott said. "Sometimes this is the only fresh produce our clients will get all month."
COOL receives more produce each month from the organic farm Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, but food pantry officials say they also very much appreciate the efforts of faith-based groups like Congregation Or Shalom, and even resident gardeners who plant an extra row to share.
"I just think it's so interesting," Abbott adds, "how different faith communities have come together to help those less fortunate in the community."