BELOIT - If you reap what you sow, those at Caritas will be having an especially abundant harvest this year.
Volunteers continue to go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to nurturing the organization's gardens. From sprinkling cayenne pepper around garden boxes to ward off critters to adding flowers, signs and other decor, Caritas volunteer gardeners are taking the raised beds to new heights.
"You can't just plant a seed and expect it to happen. You have to tend to it. The more time and effort you put in, the more it will produce," said Caritas gardener Al Aberle.
Caritas, located at 2840 Prairie Ave., not only offers a food pantry and diaper bank, but also has community garden space. With about 30 raised beds available for rent, Caritas has plenty of opportunities for testing out one's green thumb. Those who volunteer say they reap rewards ranging from friendship and fresh produce to more developed palates.
The community garden which Caritas launched in 2011-2012 continues to evolve. What began as flat land covered in compost is now home to the raised beds. Gardeners can borrow tools from an accompanying shed and help themselves to an ample water supply. To rent a space, gardeners make a $10 deposit at beginning of the season. If they clean up their garden space in the fall, they get their $10 back, said Caritas Executive Director Max Dodson.
Dodson said this year has had an ideal growing season, despite a late planting. Garden cleanup began on May 5, as there was freezing rain on the previously planned date of April 15. Although one baby skunk was spotted in the garden this year, it's been relatively critter-free. This year there have been 10 volunteers renting spaces, with some overseeing multiple beds.
When the season comes to a close, gardeners will celebrate their work. Dodson said Caritas is planning a harvest party with favorites featured from the gardens such as green tomato cake, a hit in years past.
Two avid Caritas gardeners - Aberle and Mary Ann Ewing - said they've been renting space for several years. They both have lawns covered in old trees making it too shady for gardening.
Aberle noted he would have to use more than 50 containers to grow the same amount of vegetables he can produce at a Caritas raised bed.
He tends his raised plot two to three times a week.
"You need to be consistent with it. Unfortunately, some people when they start gardening think they can leave it and come back for a harvest," Aberle said.
This year Aberle's raised bed is home to greens, beets, various tomatoes, peas, green beans, acorn squash and zucchini. He eats some of his bounty and shares the rest. When he gets an overflow of vegetables such as zucchini, he donates them to Caritas.
In addition to Caritas neighbors working the garden, Dodson noted Caritas picks up produce from Skelly's Farm Market, ensuring a wide variety of available produce at the food bank.
Aberle said nothing can match the variety and tastiness of items grown in the Caritas gardens. He especially enjoys plucking a pea off the plant and into his mouth to savor the sweetness.
Not using any herbicides or pesticides, Aberle said the garden produce is clean and healthy. The same type of vegetables in the store could be costly.
Aberle said the gardens have also changed him. After being exposed to new vegetables from other gardeners he has become interested in tasting food he normally wouldn't buy.
"Last year I grew collard greens and mixed them in with the spinach," Aberle said.
Aberle said he continues to learn and read up more on gardening. Most recently, for example, he read that the best produce is washed, not scrubbed.
"There are a lot of things gardens teach you, even if you are older," Aberle said.
Aberle said he will continue to keep his garden growing and encourages others to give it a try. The more work he puts in, the tastier the food becomes.
Having raised six kids on garden produce, Ewing said she continues to feed the masses. She delivers to senior citizens who can't get out and young moms.
This year her bed is filled with turnips, mustard and collard greens, corn and onions. She has a bountiful harvest of green beans which she said maintain their flavor after freezing.
Ewing takes great pride in her space, planting flowers on the sides of her box and saving corn she will use for decorating in the fall.
Ewing is also tending to her crops. To combat any potential critters, she has lined the inside and outside of her box with cayenne pepper.
Last month she was eagerly awaiting a new arrival and the highlight of her season: yellow tomatoes.
"I can't wait to see one on my vine," Ewing said. "I have my salt shaker ready."