By Grace Hardy

With the fall months comes cooler weather and some truly beautiful days that may be enjoyed spending some time in the garden. But for many of our Food for All partners, the Coronavirus pandemic has made it extremely difficult to have consistent and regular engagement in and around the gardens for the past two years. Disruption to once “normal” routines combined with safety concerns have limited our access to the gardens and opportunities to use them as a shared place of service and impact. Despite these challenges, the Food for All program has exceeded expectations due to the hard work of our dedicated partners.

This month, we wanted to take the time to celebrate and learn from a couple of Food for All champions who have managed to maintain a high level of engagement with others during this challenging time.  If you are looking for some inspiration to increase your engagement with others in these garden spaces, look no further! We have asked these FFA champions to share the secrets to their success.

The garden at Eagleview Town Center is headed up by the wonderful Terry Rothermel who has made significant strides in expanding the network of garden volunteers in 2021. We spoke with her about what worked well and some ideas for continued growth into the future.

The core group of volunteers has grown significantly through several different forms of outreach. One major factor for their success this year was the addition of a group from NextGen, a corporate partner located close by who volunteers with a team from the office on a weekly basis, which helps to build their camaraderie and team relationships while giving back to the community. Strengthening connections between our partners and the community is  one of Trellis’ core values, and we are committed to this aspect of our work.

Another new element that increased engagement was an information box, designed and installed by Trellis near the entrance to the garden. This box holds flyers that give directions to interested community members on how to get involved. High-impact engagements delivered by Trellis in 2021 helped cultivate additional interest in the garden, including a seedling giveaway and several garden tours, elements of the engagement package offered by Trellis to all our partners in order to increase the level of community and activity in your garden sites.

Another key to success was celebration. Terry took the initiative to host a garden party, serving up food made from the types of veggies that were grown in the garden. Invites went out to current volunteers as well as the surrounding housing community so that people would have a chance to get to know what goes on in the community garden. Events like this are a great way to safely get together in outdoor spaces, and to encourage new folks to get involved.

Terry’s advice for increasing engagement is to consider your audience—who is most likely to already be interested in the work we are doing through Food for All? For instance, if there is a farmer’s market in the area, perhaps there is an opportunity to pass out info to patrons who are likely already interested in local food systems and organic agriculture.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Narberth is another partner who has maintained a solid base of volunteers throughout the years. We spoke to Pat Brubaker, the garden champion, about the history of engagement with the garden.

One key to successful engagement at Holy Trinity has been to find a time that works best and stick to it. Settling on a time that worked for everyone was the biggest challenge. Initially, weekday afternoons proved to be too hot and storing produce became difficult. After some experimentation, Pat says “we switched to an early morning harvest which was then taken directly to the Grace Lutheran food bank.  The seniors were on board and the younger ones were way more inclined to give their time on a weekend day for the more physically demanding garden efforts.  And so it continues to this day.”

Pat also sends regular updates to everyone from the church who is involved in the garden, including those who have been involved in previous years. Sometimes these updates come from Trellis, other times Pat shares what is being grown and harvested, and always ends with a reminder of how and when they can help. Consistent timing and messaging has allowed the volunteer base to remain strong at Holy Trinity throughout the pandemic.

As for recruiting new volunteers, a healthy garden can be a big draw.  Pat says “the garden lushness itself is spreading the message!  It is a very visible corner and friends often talk about what we are growing with a kind of awe.” A few new volunteers have joined the ranks simply from stopping to talk as they walk by and admire the garden. Engagement is a key to success in our Food for All programs. We would love to hear from you – what have been your keys to successfully engaging with others in and around your garden? Let us know, and we would love to share it with the entire FFA network. Thank you for all that you do, and for who you are. Together we are helping our world grow in a new way!