Everyone loves tomatoes, Tina Koral has found. What, then, could be better than plucking freshly ripened ones out of your very own garden?
A small but growing number of families in need are able to do just that -- along with peppers, herbs and anything else they desire to grow, thanks to a GardenWorks DuPage project Koral started last year with her husband, Joseph.
Working with the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry, People's Resource Center in Wheaton and Westmont, and Glen Ellyn-based Bridge Communities, Koral selected families in need of food and interested in growing it themselves. GardenWorks then provided everything they needed, from a raised garden bed to seeds and seedlings to gardening tools, along with volunteer coaches to enable the families to raise fresh produce.
"We just get great feedback from our clients about it," said Susan Papierski, executive director of the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry. "They love it."
Papierski and Melissa Travis of People's Resource Center said their food pantries receive fresh produce donated from other sources, but growing their own makes it special for families who participate in GardenWorks.
"It's a really great way to get youngsters interested in eating nutritionally," Travis said. "It has the ability to teach people skills they are going to use. Tina has done a great job with it."
Way to volunteer
Helping people grow gardens isn't what Koral would have seen herself doing back when she was growing up in the Chicago area.
"My mom had a huge vegetable garden, although back then, I kind of hated doing the gardening chores," she said. "Every time we mowed the lawn, we would have to spread the grass as mulch around the plants."
Koral earned a bachelor's degree in nutrition and a master's in public health, and worked for nonprofits a number of years before deciding to return to school. She earned a degree in horticulture from College of DuPage and started her own landscape design business, Tina Koral Gardens. She does that part-time while caring for her daughter, Averie, 5, and son Joey, 3.
Wanting a volunteer project they could do as family, Koral and her husband started GardenWorks last year.
"It all kind of fell into place -- the horticulture, wanting to help people, wanting to volunteer and the background in nutrition," she said. "It all worked together and came to this."
GardenWorks helped four families grow fresh produce last year and 10 new gardens -- eight raised-bed and two balcony -- have been added this year. Last year's families, with the exception of one who moved away, also received compost and plants for a second year of planting. One of the second-year families has 10 children, who were asking when the "garden lady" would be back.
"The kids are the ones who really take care of it," Koral said.
Meeting the families they help and the volunteers has been the most satisfying part of GardenWorks, Koral said. She recalled delivering a garden to a home this year, only to find the entire family gathered because the patriarch was dying. The volunteers worked quickly and quietly, and the dying man's wife expressed her gratitude before they left.
"She said this was a bright light in an otherwise very dark time. She was really thankful that we came and did it," Koral said.
Unexpectedly, GardenWorks also received the opportunity this year to grow fresh produce for clients of the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry unable to tend a garden. When two garden plots in Glen Ellyn Park District's Village Green Park, 130 S. Lambert Road, became available, Dan Hopkins, the park district's superintendent of parks and planning, contacted Koral to see if she wanted to use them. Hopkins, a gardener himself, donated some seedings as well.
"I know Tina and I know she's local," Hopkins said. "So far, it's working really well."
With the help of two Daisy Girl Scout troops, Koral planted the 30-by-30-foot space with a variety of tomatoes, hot peppers, squash and corn. Volunteers help tend it each week. Whether it will be a good year for growing remains to be seen, Koral said.
"It's starting out really well with a lot of rain," she said. "But it's cooler, and those tomatoes and peppers, they like it hot, so it's hard to say. With gardening, you have to be an optimist."
Garden of their own
The families who grow their own gardens receive a 4-by-8-foot raised cedar gardening bed built by Koral's husband that is filled with soil and compost. The raised bed makes it possible to grow more plants in a smaller amount of space and provides for better drainage, Koral said.
"Our soil has so much clay in it. It's just nice to put a raised bed on top of that bad soil and fill it with nice, clean, organic, nutrient-rich, weed-free soil. It really gives the plants a better start," she said.
Families are asked ahead what they want to grow, and GardenWorks provides the seeds and plants.
"Everybody wants tomatoes. Tomatoes, peppers and hot peppers are definitely the most popular," said Koral, adding that a variety of herbs, zucchini, squash and eggplant usually round out the choices.
Along with a garden bed and plants, the families receive a harvest basket containing a hand cultivator, trowels, a kneeling pad and gardening gloves.
Some of the families are novice gardeners; others have had gardening experience in the past, Koral said. The same goes for the volunteer coaches. Koral said she had a volunteer orientation meeting in April at the Glen Ellyn Public Library and 27 people signed on to help.
"Some had no gardening experience, but they had a passion for what we were doing," she said.
Each garden costs about $200 to create, Koral said. She posted an appeal at the crowdfunding site Indiegogo that brought in money to build the private gardens. Sweet Home Organics in Villa Park, along with three individuals, donated most of the seedlings, she said.
Families who have received gardens live in Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Winfield, Glendale Heights, Naperville, Westmont and West Chicago.
A resident of Glen Ellyn for the past 11 years, Koral said she and her family are moving to St. Charles this summer so they have not planted a garden of their own. She plans to take GardenWorks to the Tri-Cities, but will continue the work in DuPage with the help of volunteers.
GardenWorks doesn't need any more garden volunteers this year, but could use a web designer, legal help in incorporating as a nonprofit, and people willing to serve on a board of directors, she said.
"We're always taking names of people who would like to volunteer for next year," she said. "We're looking to expand and grow every year."
For information on GardenWorks, see gardenworksdupage.org.