Hale-YMCA Community Garden

Posted by: on May 2, 2012 | One Comment

Last January, I spent an afternoon volunteering in the Hale-YMCA community garden. I volunteered because I was tired of sitting behind my computer screen reading about agriculture and wanted a chance to do something a little more concrete and physical. (I’m not trying to brag about how awesome I am because I volunteer. This is actually a class assignment.)I then enrolled in a community food systems class for the spring semester that requires a fieldwork component. For the fieldwork, each student chooses a community partner and works at least 10 hours over the course of the semester. The volunteer work must be related to community food system development. I decided to continue volunteering at the Hale-YMCA community garden because I enjoyed working there and wanted some experience gardening.

Community Partner: YMCA

Jenny Schwanke, Community Garden Coordinator

The Hale Y Gardens are run by the YMCA at Virginia Tech, which was founded in 1873. The Y is now an independent non-profit and offers many, diverse programs to the community, including pottery, dance lessons, language courses, ESL classes, a thrift store, and volunteer opportunities for students (mentoring and alternative break programs). Jenny Schwanke is the Y’s Community Garden Coordinator. She works closely with both the gardeners and volunteers and maintains the gardens. Jenny also coordinates after school garden programs in the area. And she works with many Virginia Tech students, providing garden space for student projects and research. I have really enjoyed working closely with Jenny.

Hale Y Gardens

Inside the greenhouse

The gardens are located at the end of Maywood St. in Blacksburg, VA. A generous community member, who remains active in the community garden and its programs, donated the land for the gardens. The garden has plots, raised beds, and a solar greenhouse that uses a subterranean heating and cooling system. The community garden offers space for individuals to rent, demonstration gardens, educational gardens, and permaculture and crop rotation studies. Community gardeners have to use organic growing practices (additional garden policies can be found here). And the garden even has a slew of bee hives (check out all the little white boxes in the very back of the header image!).


I spent three days volunteering, two mornings and one afternoon. Two of these days were in the garden and one was at the Waldron Family YMCA in Shawsville for Healthy Kids Day. Each day was significantly different from the others. I painted, weeded, mulched, photographed, and planted seeds with kids.

Painting: March 14, 2012

Sample signs without posts

March was extremely warm in Southwest Virginia (lots of sun and 70 degree weather). And even though it was early in the growing season, there was plenty of work in the community garden. I went out with fellow classmates to paint signs and the picnic table. The signs designate garden plots. Each gardener gets a wooden sign with their name painted on it. The picnic table provides a place for gardeners and volunteers to gather for lunch, potlucks, or even just snack breaks. The first time I volunteered in the garden, Jenny, the garden coordinator, brought hot chocolate and donuts from, Carol Lee’s, a local bakery. She set up the snacks on the picnic table under an awning by the greenhouse.

The multicolored picnic table: Pink, green, and yellow

First, we primed the picnic table and the signs. While they dried, we took a little break in the two feet of welcome shade the greenhouse provided. Once the signs were ready, we were going to attach them to their posts with a drill. But that didn’t go so well. We apparently have limited drill skills. Despite our limited skills, the real problem was the length of the screws. They were too long and stuck too far out of the back of the signs, posing a safety hazard and liability concern. We gave up on the drilling, leaving that for a day when we had the correct screw length. Instead we finished painting signs and the picnic table in bright pink (top), yellow (one bench), and green (the other bench).

It’s Spring!: April 15, 2012

Approximately 55 cadets from the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets volunteered in the community garden from 9 a.m.-noon. I arrived (dragging my house guest with me) to help Jenny and my classmates with their senior projects. The cadets were quickly put to work mulching, mowing, weeding, and drilling signs (you know, the ones we failed at previously…). Jenny asked me to take photographs. So, I wandered around the garden, awkwardly snapping pictures of the cadets hard at work (and I have to admit listening in on their conversations…amusing).

Volunteers! (Cadets and Civilians)

Once I had a significant number of photos from various areas of the garden, I went to help my classmates weed and mulch their senior project plots. Pulling up weeds can be surprisingly tough work. Sometimes those roots just don’t want to budge. But it was social work, we chatted away while yanking and digging. We even had our own live entertainment. One of my classmate’s brought her children and they romped on the rocks and chanted about carrots, astronauts, and cake (whatever those three things have in common–perhaps astronauts eat carrot cake…). When the weeding was done, we started spreading mulch. Initially the cadets were fetching the mulch from down the hill and rolling it up in wheelbarrows. However, when noon rolled around and we hadn’t finished, they stopped hauling mulch and we took over. Mulch is heavy and hauling it up the hill was quite a work out.

While I enjoyed the work, the exercise, and the conversation, the highlight of the day was the onions. As I was leaving, one of the gardeners asked if I wanted some fresh Egyptian onions. Yes, please! I happily went home with a handful of lovely little onions. They were delicious.

Healthy Kids Day: April 28, 2012

Jenny, the YMCA Community Garden Coordinator, and I drove to Shawsville for Healthy Kids Day. The Y had various community organizations running different stations (face painting, bowling, and gardening). We of course were the gardening activity.

Me holding the sweet basil and nasturtium seed packets

Jenny developed a planting activity using clear egg cartons, sweet basil seeds, and nasturtium seeds. The idea was to show kids different parts of a plant that are edible: basil leaves and nasturtium flowers. The seeds for these plants are also significantly different. Basil seeds are tiny and nasturtium seeds are large. We had the kids fill one part of the egg carton with planting soil, then plant six basil seeds on one side and six nasturtium seeds on the other. When they close it up, they have a little mini green house. And since the egg cartons are clear, they can see the roots develop.

The kids were really funny and they each interacted with the activity differently. A few of them were super excited about planting seeds and getting their hands a little dirty. Others were very unsure and chose to use provided spoons instead of actually touching the dirt. One kid was completely self-sufficient and just dove in before we could explain the activity. There was even one little girl who knew quite a lot about planting and wanted to be a gardener.

Lessons Learned

This will probably sound cliché, but I think I got more out of these short volunteer days then I gave. Not to belittle my effort or contribution, but I enjoyed myself. Working in the garden gave me an excuse to get outside, meet new people, and even pick up some fresh onions from a gardener! Additionally, I was able to kind of job shadow Jenny. I got to see at least a glimpse of what it’s like to run a community garden. Running a community garden really draws on your organization, delegation, and planning skills. You have to plan and organize enough activities for large groups and then be clear and effective when delegating tasks, ensuring everyone has something to work on. Additionally, a garden coordinator has to be willing to give up their own time even more than the volunteers. While volunteers may come out for one Saturday, garden coordinators have to be there each time a group volunteers. Volunteering in the garden also showed me how you can pass your own enthusiasm for a project on to others. While helping my classmates in their senior project gardens, I heard one of the cadet volunteers say how much he was learning about gardening. Being passionate about your work ensures great work and inspires others.

1 Comment

  1. mom
    May 2, 2012

    Sounds like a good thing! I remember when you were five, I think, I gave you a corner of our family garden. I put up a piece of chicken wire in an arch for shelter and let you plant anything you wanted. You used to sit inside your little hut and watch me work! And, you got some good carrots going. We both love plants, don’t we?


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