With more Iowans seeking food assistance, Iowa 4-H members are growing garden vegetables to donate.
Gardeners of all ages and abilities across the state have a new resource.

Gardening to Give is a new program presented by Iowa 4-H and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach that provides gardening education and activities and encourages participants to share their bounty.

“Gardening is a great outdoor family activity,” says Haley Jones, 4-H civic engagement and leadership specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Out­reach, “and it can be a way to help others in this unprecedented time of need, whether you are giving to your friends and neighbors or to your church or food pantry.” 

Throughout the 25-week program, registered participants will learn about growing vegetables, microgreens, herbs and flowers, online at their convenience. All ages and abilities are welcome, as are 4-H members and non-members.

“Extension is involved, so there are also resources and lessons in food safety and preservation,” says Jones.

Every Friday afternoon, gardeners receive an email with a weekly lesson that includes a family activity.

Week three focused on care for new plants with tips for watering, weeding and fertilizer use and an activity that demonstrated how roots work. Week four highlighted food safety, especially for food that's donated. Week five taught the ins and outs of composting.

In week two, gardeners made paper pots for starting seeds by wrapping newspaper around a juice can then removing the can.

“We try to make the activities super simple so even younger kids can help,” says Jones, “and try to use minimal supplies that people already have.” All lessons and information are presented in both English and Spanish.

Additional resources are listed each week, some aimed at the more experienced gardener. Gardening to Give partners with Master Gardeners; Flavors of Northwest Iowa; Monarchs on the Move; Native Bee Challenge; Sow, Grow, Eat, and Keep; and Spend Smart. Eat Smart. 

Participants are invited to showcase their veggies and share how they are giving by posting photos to social media as #GrowNShow.

“People’s gardens are in and growing by now, so they can show off their design and progress,” says Jones.

4-H clubs can get in on the action with research-based challenge opportunities and monthly Harvest Challenges. 

“We like to offer something for clubs to do, especially now when their opportunities to meet are limited,” says Jones. “This still gives them an opportunity to work collectively.” One club member or leader collects and submits the information.

Gardeners are still able to register anytime throughout the 25-week program, and back newsletters are available. All resources and registration are available on the Gardening to Give website. Updates and participant feedback can be found on the Gardening to Give Facebook page.

Jones says participation so far has exceeded expectations. 

“We really didn’t know what to expect,” she says. As of mid-June, 324 households (990 individuals) had signed up, with 78 of the state’s 100 County Extension services represented.  

The program has offered some incentives. Those who registered prior to June 1 received a 4-H branded trowel. Jones says there is more to come.

“We want to keep people involved so they continue to learn,” says Jones. 

She says future segments will highlight how to identify and monitor pests with gardeners sharing photos of pests they find. They are prepared to address statewide pest threats and diseases like tomato blight, along with weather issues like flooding or drought.

“Our list of topics is tentative, so we can be flexible as needs for information arise and growing conditions change,” says Jones. Lesson topics are set in a weekly meeting of 4-H and Extension staff.

Most people in Iowa have the opportunity to grow some type of food, whether it is in a yard garden, raised beds or large or small containers. Meanwhile, economic hardship created by COVID-19 has put accentuated stress on local food banks and other food distribution programs.

“The main reason for doing this was to provide a way for people to help others,” says Jones. As 4-H civic engagement and leadership specialist, she is always searching for ways to help 4-H youth improve their service, civic engagement and leadership skills.

4-H is the largest youth development organization in the world involving 70 million youth in 70 countries outside of the U.S. That makes being a better global citizen a priority.

“Gardening to Give is a direct ex­­ample of an opportunity to address those issues and to live up to the 4-H Pledge – I pledge my hands to larger service for my club, my community, my country and my world.”

It’s also a good way to produce and eat fresh, healthy, nutritious food here at home.

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Greenfield.