Community gardens offer a place to grow plants and friendships


— While spring has seemed slow in coming around the Willmar Lakes Area, when the weather finally turns encouraging for planting, garden plots around the city will suddenly turn into a hive of activity. This is also true at two community gardens in the city, which serve as a place to provide gardening space for those who don't have their own at home.

"I like to provide opportunities for anyone in the community to experience something they haven't before," said Britta Diem, director of the

Willmar Community Center

with its High Avenue Gardens.

The High Avenue Gardens is an established community garden, having been tilled, planted and harvested for several years now. The garden has 60 10-by-15-feet plots that people can rent for $20 for the season. It has been a very popular endeavor, with many gardeners coming back year after year. The garden is already full for the 2023 season, and Diem has started a waiting list for people to put their name down if they are interested in a plot. They just need to contact Diem at the community center.

"I'll add them to next year's waiting list," Diem said.

The Wesley Community Garden at

Willmar's United Methodist Church

is looking forward to its second season as a community garden. The idea to transform a section of the church's grounds into a garden came from a former pastor.

"We've got pretty expansive grounds that was just grass being mowed and she said we should start a community garden, make better use of the property," said Ronald Van Nurden, who keeps an eye on the garden.

The church received a grant to create the garden space, with its plots of 20 by 20 feet and 15 by 20 feet, along with building a shed for tool storage and to subsidize the gardening fee for those wanting to take part. It is $20 to rent a plot, but the gardener gets the money back at the end of the season. There are still plots available, with the church hoping to fill the garden this year. Almost everyone who planted in the garden last year has come back for year two, and anyone interested can contact the church office.

"Everyone is welcome," and you don't have to be a church member, Van Nurden said.

Planting at the gardens usually begins around Mother's Day, or when Mother Nature says its time, and goes until mid-fall. The gardens are tilled prior to planting, and then it is up to the individual gardeners. There is water available at both gardens, and the community center does have some tools available for use.

Each of the gardens have a few raised beds, which makes it easier for older or disabled persons to garden. At the church garden, only disabled gardeners can use the two raised beds.

Both the High Avenue Gardens and the Wesley Community Garden had a very good growing season last year. Van Nurden said the church never knew how fertile its soil was until people started planting in it. And at the community center, the garden plots saw a huge array of plants being grown — from veggies to watermelons and sunflowers and other annual flowers.

"It goes very well. It is so fun to see all the colors and all the produce that comes from this," Diem said.

Van Nurden said the church wants the Wesley Garden, which is named after the founder of the Methodist denomination, to also be a place where people can learn. Church youth will be taking over one of the garden plots to learn all about growing plants. Any produce from the plot will be donated to Family Promise. There are many experienced gardeners in the UMC congregation, including a master gardener.

"We welcome families who have never gardened before, who want to learn," Van Nurden said. "We will work with them and help get them started on the right foot."

It isn't just vegetables and flowers being grown at the gardens, but also fellowship and friendship. People connect with each over gardening, sharing their knowledge and recipes.

Parents can bring their children who enjoy walking along the garden rows or playing nearby. Seniors who no longer have the yard space for a garden can still take part in a favorite hobby, while those living in apartments can still get their hands dirty in a garden plot.

At the end of the season last year, the gardeners at the Wesley Garden held a potluck meal where people brought dishes made from the produce grown in the garden. Diem has seen that coming together firsthand, as she has had a plot at the High Avenue Gardens, growing the makings for homemade salsa.

"I love it. I never had a garden growing up but I thought I am going to give this a shot," Diem said. "I really enjoy it and its a great way for me to meet the people who are the plot owners."

The community gardens at the Willmar Community Center and United Methodist Church have been successes as both a place to grow and a place to gather and both Diem and Van Nurden hope that continues.

"We wanted to create a community garden and we created a garden community," Van Nurden said. "It really got to be that."