Growing Concerns: Learn veggie gardening from pro and help community

Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve never tasted produce fresh from the garden. Your only experience with fruits and vegetables is the supermarket variety: lettuce packaged in plastic bags, pale, flavorless tomatoes. Corn rushed in by truck, but not before the sugar in the kernels has already turned to starch. And then there are the strawberries: pretty on the outside, anemic on the inside. Is it any wonder kids say they don’t like fruits and vegetables?

Now imagine biting into a plump, sun-warmed strawberry straight from the garden. Juice gushes over your taste buds in a burst of incomparable sweetness. Next, stop and pick a handful of cherry tomatoes. Pop one into your mouth and see why most vegetable gardeners will never eat another store-bought tomato again. Sweet corn is a whole new experience when cooked five minutes after picking. And salad is the essence of freshness when gathered, a leaf at a time, from your own beautiful crop.

Yes, we are fortunate to have the year-round bounty and variety provided by big, industrial farms and supermarkets, but let’s face it: nothing tastes better than home-grown food. Brimming with flavor and nutrients, the fruits (and vegetables) of our labor are definitely worth the effort it takes to grow them.

You don’t need a farm or even a big back yard to grow fresh produce. Many veggies (and those plump strawberries) thrive in pots on a sunny patio. Leaf lettuce and spinach will do well in a cooler spot. Herbs are a natural for containers, grown right outside the kitchen window.

But having staffed many Master Gardener clinics, I know some folks feel that gardening is a daunting task. They come to the clinics with tales of blighted tomatoes, salad greens devoured by snails and slugs, corn that doesn’t ripen. Others won’t even try. Maybe they grew up in an urban environment, a different climate, or simply don’t know where to begin.

Right now, an unusual opportunity exists for a few good families who would like expert, hands-on training in vegetable gardening. If you and your family can spend at least four hours a week this growing season, you’ll come out with the skills to cultivate your own bountiful garden on Whidbey Island.

The instructor is Dave Thomas, a 24-year Master Gardener who has been tilling Whidbey Island soil for 30 years. Dave is the volunteer manager of The Lord’s Garden, which supplies fresh produce in season for low-income seniors, homeless and abused women and children and others in need. This healthy harvest is distributed to Oak Harbor Senior Center, Cambridge Cove and Cam-Bey Apartments, CADA, Meals on Wheels and Help House.

A non-profit 501(3)(C) organization, The Lord’s Garden was begun in 1987 by former Oak Harbor resident Jerry Lamphere. Despite its name, the garden is not affiliated with any religious organization, but it does heed the call to feed the hungry.

Money isn’t an issue for this enterprise. Years ago, the organization purchased tractors and tillers with contributed funds. Via the Master Gardener program, Burpee Seed Company donates year-old seed, which has a 90 percent germination rate. Thomas says he spends approximately $250 a year on fuel for the tractor and tillers, soil amendments and that’s it.

The Lord’s Garden recently moved to its third location. When Lamphere started the project, it was located in Coupeville. Later, it moved to private property near the Navy golf course, leased from the owner for a dollar a year. This year Thomas relocated the garden to former pastureland he owns adjacent to his home on Fakkema Road near Oak Harbor.

The land was overgrazed and weedy, but Thomas and his main assistant, Walt Bankowski, plowed, tilled, worked tons of chicken manure into the soil and installed a drip irrigation system. Now, about an acre and a half of the 10-acre plot is sown in spinach, beets, chard, leaf and head lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, onions and strawberries. Beans, corn and cucumber will be sown as soon as the soil warms up.

Although The Lord’s Garden is not state-certified organic, Thomas and his crew use only natural fertilizers, and crops are never sprayed with chemical pesticides.

The garden has always been staffed by volunteers. Walt and Lynne Bankowski of Oak Harbor were there in the beginning, and Thomas signed on in those early years, as well. There are a handful of regulars who donate their efforts to the garden when time allows. They come from all walks of life, including medical doctors, retirees and high school students. Some are Master Gardeners, others are novices who enjoy working outdoors. Church youth groups and Scouts have labored en masse to help with harvest, and a small group of women, including Dave’s wife, Ginny, manage distribution. All come when they can, but are on no particular schedule.

While their efforts are invaluable, Thomas says that what he most needs now is consistency. He would like to enlist the help of one or two young families who are able to donate at least two hours a day, two days a week to the garden. From March through October, they would perform all the tasks involved, including planting, weeding, nurturing, harvesting and distribution. In exchange, Thomas says he will teach them all they need to know to grow their own food.

“Not only will these families learn the skills to be able to garden successfully on Whidbey Island, but the children will discover what community is all about,” Thomas said.

The kids may even start loving veggies! When they plant the seeds themselves, nurture the living, growing plants, and harvest the fruits of their labor, children take part in a miracle of nature that can alter their cravings for junk food forever.

Another healthy fringe benefit of volunteering at The Lord’s Garden is exercise. It may not seem like it from afar, but gardeners work every major muscle group, often for hours at a time. There are even cardio benefits, as anyone who’s pushed a heavily laden wheelbarrow uphill, or hand-tilled a planting row can attest.

Dave Thomas feels that gardening together brings out the best in people.

“You grow as a family when you grow food,” he said. He should know. The retired Navy chief petty officer and his close-knit family have been working the soil together for decades. Sons Mike and Mark began growing and selling cut flowers during their high school years to earn money for college. The boys are now grown and gone, but M&M Flowers goes on. Dave and Ginny sell their famous dahlias, gladiolas, lilies, iris and other fabulous flowers at local farmers’ markets and at their roadside stand. Daughter Trina helps out both in the garden and at the market.

If you and your family are interested in volunteering at The Lord’s Garden, get the details from Dave Thomas via e-mail at

Mariana Graham writes this column as a volunteer WSU-Island County Master Gardener. Contact her at

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