When Donna Stumphf was in her Grand Forks, North Dakota, community garden last fall, she was surprised to see the number of abandoned plots that had viable vegetables left behind.
"I saw so many gardens that still had vegetables and the people just walked away," Stumphf tells MNN. "I guess they were just tired of them or they just produced too much and they didn’t know who to call."
Stumphf, 68, began going from plot to plot, carefully gathering up any lingering vegetables with plans to take them to the local homeless shelter.
"I thought this was crazy to waste this," Stumphf says. "There’s got to be people out there who can really use these vegetables."
Dieter Heitmann, co-owner of All Seasons Garden Center which runs the community project, saw Stumphf and was curious what she was doing. When she told him, Heitmann pointed out plots that had leftover carrots and beans and squash.
When she saw how much she had harvested, the idea lit a huge lightbulb over her head. She knew there were plenty of people in the area who sure could use some fresh vegetables.
"I thought, what I need to do is see if they will let me have some land where I can plant a garden where I can grow fresh vegetables and let me donate them," says Stumphf who approached All Seasons. "I told them what I was thinking of doing and off we went."
The garden center donated a huge 4,000-square-foot pie-shaped plot at the edge of the community garden, as well as at least four dozen plants, including tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and zucchini. Normally an 800-square-foot garden is $150 to rent for the season.
Stumphf had a pretty lofty goal: She wanted to grow 1,000 pounds of vegetables by the end of fall. But because it was a long, cold winter in North Dakota, planting didn't even start until after Memorial Day.
"I thought to myself — OK, go big or go home," she says. "I didn't think we were even going to get close to 500 [pounds] as late as it was planted, plus we were having a drought here too."
Stumphf has always been a gardener. She grew up on a farm where she and her siblings were expected to help plant, weed and harvest. They didn't believe in pesticides, so one of her jobs as a kid was walking amid the crops and whacking bugs off with a stick.
"Organic gardening is the best, I suppose," she says. "But it was a chore and I didn’t really want to do it because I just wanted to play."
But this charity garden was serious business. To help get things started, her 16-year-old grandson came from Minnesota to help, spending four weeks over the summer, choosing plants, laying out rows and helping plant and seed.
As things started to sprout and grow, more volunteers stepped up. Other gardeners pitched in to help. When harvest time started in August, people who had required community service hours ended up in the garden. Often Stumphf and her crew would don headlamps, working well past midnight amid the neatly organized rows.
In just one night, volunteers picked 78 pounds of cherry tomatoes. On another day, it was 160 pounds of Swiss chard.
'I got weak in the knees'
Starting in mid-August and going through the end of October, Stumphf would make at least one trip a week to the Salvation Army and sometimes the Northlands Rescue Mission dropping off loads of fresh produce.
"It makes a big difference. Fresh vegetables are better, healthier. Those vegetables that she gave, people really enjoyed it and appreciated it," says Rona Beatty, a lieutenant with the Grand Forks Salvation Army. "It’s so amazing that a private person would do so much for the community."
In the end, Stumphf was bowled over when she saw her final tally: 3,727 pounds.
"I felt like a little kid. I was giddy," she says about hearing that amazing number. "I couldn’t believe it. I was shaking. I got weak in the knees."
But not for long — Stumphf is already planning ahead to next year.
"I met with the owner of the garden center to talk about next year. I told her if I see any plots that aren’t bought and there’s nothing on them, I’m warning you ahead of time I’m going to be planting like crazy."