Master Gardeners see themselves as educators as much as gardeners, with their mission of helping people "learn to grow." However, members of the DuPage County Extension Master Gardeners have taken that one step further.
Beyond answering gardening questions and helping with plant problems, they are encouraging fellow gardeners to grow extra vegetables for families who use the local food pantry.
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This is the second year that Master Gardeners from Naperville, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton and Addison have tended four full-sized community garden plots in Naperville, donated by the Naperville Park District for their food pantry project.
They credit the idea to the Naperville Community Gardeners, who have planted extra to fill food pantries since the Daily Herald began promoting the idea about 15 years ago.
Now, the Master Gardeners have taken over the concept -- still funded with seed money from the Naperville Community Gardeners. They are among 500 gardeners tending community plots provided by the park district on West Street in Naperville.
"We are extremely excited to once again partner with the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners to promote community gardening, provide educational resources to our participants, and further encourage gardeners to donate produce to those in need," said Brad Wilson, superintendent of recreation for the Naperville Park District. "The Master Gardeners are a wonderful resource for the gardening program, and the benefits of their efforts and the efforts of Naperville gardeners extend well into the community."
In March, one month before the plots opened, the Master Gardeners held workshops to teach beginners how to get started. They also offered tips in newsletters and online.
Mostly, they continue to make themselves visible at the plots, conducting help desks there each month and setting up a donation stand for gardeners to leave extra produce for the food pantry.
"We try and be proactive," says Ron Ory of Naperville, one of the Master Gardeners. "We walk the area, asking gardeners whether they have any issues or questions."
They also promote their food pantry project and the benefits of making nutritious vegetables available to those in their community who are struggling to put food on the table.
Their community gardeners are responding.
During one of their recent harvests, they found 112 pounds of produce left at their donation stand. It was their single highest daily amount for the year, and it helped to push their total donation to more than 500 pounds of vegetables.
"We're at least six weeks ahead of where we were last year," Ory says. "By this time last year, we had donated only 63 pounds and didn't hit 500 pounds until September."
All of their donated produce goes to Loaves & Fishes Food Community Pantry in Naperville, whose mission is to end hunger and empower lives. In June alone, they served more than 9,000 people, or 2,331 households and 4,051 children.
"What beautiful produce and tremendous work by the Master Gardeners," said Charles McLimas, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, in a letter to the group.
"The produce you plant, grow and harvest with love and care," he said, "will be given to members of our community who very much need it."
Ory credited the increased visibility of the Master Gardeners and their food pantry project to drawing more Naperville gardeners into participating. They also continue to tweak their gardening methods, giving plenty of attention to soil preparation, and to maintenance, in the form of watering and weeding.
They also installed a rain garden to help with drainage problems during heavy rains, and added berms and bioswale to help with run-off water.
"It's been a team effort," Ory says. "I've had 20 Master Gardeners who have contributed mightily to the success of this project."