A new crop of community gardens in Billings will sprout in the coming spring weeks.
Last week, AmeriCorps VISTA members Neil Heckman, 31, and Lee Domeika, 22, planted seeds in various planters around the Pleasantview Apartment complex, one of two community garden locations springing up this year.
The seeds will become the next crop of community garden veggies for the complex residents this fall.
The Billings Metro VISTA crew leaders, working with the Housing Authority of Billings Community Gardens project, will tear out the existing grass outside the three-level complex in April.
The area will be transformed into a large vegetable garden containing raised beds of various sizes, built high enough to accommodate residents with disabilities and in wheelchairs.
Heckman and Domeika will help the residents plan, develop, cultivate and harvest the new garden.
The project, which created a network of two community gardens last year, aims to build gardens in every public-housing neighborhood in Billings.
The idea behind the gardens is teaching people gardening skills to sustain themselves and instilling an appreciation of where their food comes from, Heckman said.
“The first year was a huge success and our goal is to continue that success by helping the program grow to all HAB areas in town,” Heckman said on Saturday.
A second garden plot will go in this spring at the St. Johns Apartments on St. Johns Avenue.
The Housing Authority of Billings owns and manages more than 400 housing units and oversees more than 1,000 units of subsidized housing.
The organization, in conjunction with the city of Billings, launched the community garden project last spring, building a 7,700 square-foot garden at the Whitetail Run Apartments, a low-income housing project built by the housing authority on Sioux Lane in the Heights.
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The garden was developed by Billings Metro VISTA workers Lauren Asmus and Jessie Soye, and was funded by a $45,000 Community Development Block Grant provided by the city and $184,262 from the Housing Authority of Billings.
Last year, families harvested more than 400 pounds of fresh produce including tomatoes, squash, corn, lettuce, spinach, peppers, radishes, broccoli, eggplants, beets, herbs and flowers. The garden also features various berries and grapes.
But the bounty wasn’t just for the Heights residents. Much of the produce was donated to Pleasantview Apartments, at Eighth Street West and Avenue D, where about 100 low-income senior citizens live.
“The gardens address a need in the community,” Domeika said. “They also help to build community relationships.”
She said the gardens will make a significant impact in solving hunger by giving people tools to create a reliable, sustainable food source for their families.
The program offers regular classes on planting, harvesting and preserving produce with all-natural chemical-free techniques.
VISTA members arrived in Billings in February and will serve one year in the community to help reduce the risk of homelessness and create the tools people in poverty need to build sustainable futures.
In that time, they will also organize fundraisers and work to develop garden action plans that can be replicated in other housing authority locations, Heckman said.
Billings resident Susan Norwood has donated a quarter-acre of land in the Heights to the project for a pumpkin patch. The area is large enough for 1,000 pumpkins, which will be sold in the fall, with proceeds going toward future community gardens.
The VISTA team is seeking volunteers to help with the gardens. They are also seeking donations of seeds, organic fertilizers and garden tools.
“We want to make sure we have a strong volunteer core and a strong financial foundation to make sure these gardens are sustainable,” Domeika said.
If you are interested in participating or collaborating with the garden, call Domeika or Heckman at 969-3760.