Heat Takes Toll on Community Gardens

Having just finished gardening in the late afternoon heat, Abigail Hernandez pondered the difference between fast food and the natural stuff emerging from the dirt.

It’s tough to eat smart at a place like McDonald’s, the 10-year-old said Monday. On the other hand, she added, “Vegetables are healthy for you – a lot.”

Abigail’s learning lab is a community garden at Southwest Boulevard and Mill Street in the Rosedale Neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan. She eats vegetables from that garden in the lunch served as part of the summer enrichment program she attends at the Mennonite church across the street.

Health advocates throughout the metropolitan area are helping young and old alike discover the virtues of growing their own food.

The efforts are aimed primarily at low-income families, who often don’t have ready access to markets with fruits and vegetable, can’t afford them anyway, or are unfamiliar with how to prepare them.

Gardening also improves health, advocates said, by getting people off the couch and doing something physical outside.

But this year’s Sahara-like conditions – including that recent run of triple-digit temperatures – have made this an especially challenging season.

Neophyte gardeners can wilt in the heat, said Ben Sharda, executive director of the nonprofit Kansas City Community Gardens, which operates out of headquarters in Swope Park.

It’s a different story for horticulture veterans.

“Man, they get passionate about it,” Sharda said. “You are fighting the elements.”

The Kansas City area is seeing more and more urban gardeners.

Kansas City Community Gardens assists organizations on both sides of the state line and within the past five years, its network has grown by about 400 percent to include nearly 190 gardens. Participants include 129 schools.

Among the gardens that the organization operates itself is one that opened in the spring on the site of Kansas City, Mo.’s old municipal jail.

On the national level, First Lady Michelle Obama has touted community gardens as part of her campaign to reduce childhood obesity. She supplied a video address to the 2010 annual conference of the American Community Gardening Association.

Locally, community garden sponsors include:

  • The Independence Health Department, which has seven sites around that city, including plots at public housing complexes and senior citizen apartments. One newly opened garden also supplies a food pantry.
  • The University of Kansas Medical Center, which has gardens at seven schools in Kansas City, Kan. The gardens are part of the KCK Organic Teaching Gardens program operated through the medical center’s Office of Cultural Enhancement and Diversity.
  • Rosedale Development Association, which supports individual gardeners and community plots throughout the community, including the one on Mill Street across from Rainbow Mennonite Church.

Crops in the gardens include: corn, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, squash, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, radishes, collard greens, and a variety of herbs.

Growers are also showing an increased interest in fruit trees and berry bushes, Sharda said.

Battling the elements is part of the learning process.

“Planting in Kansas is a risky proposition,” noted Mark Manning, coordinator of the KU Med program. “There are lots of elements that work against you.”

Grasshoppers are one problem, said health educator Joanie Shover, who oversees the Independence Health Department’s gardens. They were out early because of the unseasonably warm winter, she said.

The intense heat has also been bad enough to cause sunburn on bell peppers, Sharda said.

Blossom end rot is also taking its toll on tomatoes. The condition causes ugly splotches on tomatoes, and Sharda said the rot generally occurs when wet soil becomes really dry.

And, it has been dry.

According to the National Weather Service, Kansas City received only about 5.4 inches of precipitation between April 1 and July 4 – about 64 percent below normal for that time span.

Severe drought conditions exist in several counties throughout the metropolitan area, according to the weather service, including Jackson County, Missouri and Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas.

Carol Guenther of Kansas City, Kan., is among the gardeners grappling with this year’s challenging conditions.

Her garden includes a raised bed she received through the Rosedale Development Association, and she came to the association offices Tuesday evening to commiserate with other gardeners.

She’s not above encouraging her crops with soothing talk and caresses here and there.

“I just hope they start doing well,” she said. “I don’t like to fail.”

The Health Forward Foundation is proud to partner with the Kansas Health Institute news service to provide weekly health stories about health and policy issues impacting the greater Kansas City region. This News Service is an editorially independent program of the Kansas Health Institute and the Health Forward Foundation and is committed to objective coverage of health issues.

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