Some Laramie gardeners know that the common wisdom that nothing will grow on the wind-swept high plains is, actually, not very wise. So, in partnership with the University of Wyoming and Feeding Laramie Valley (FLV), more than 30 local gardeners weighed each and every harvest from their home and community garden plots, some for two or even three seasons.
As published this week in the American Journal of Public Health, this team found that the average garden plot — at just over 250 square feet — yielded 128 pounds of food. That’s enough to supply two adults with their daily recommended servings of vegetables for four and a half months.
Participants named themselves Team GROW (“gardener researchers of Wyoming”) and included members with a wide range of gardening expertise. One of them was the project’s principal investigator at UW, Christine M. Porter, who notes that she brought down the average results with low yields from her own garden. Porter is an assistant professor and the Wyoming Excellence Chair in Community and Public Health in the Division of Kinesiology and Health at UW.
On the other end of the spectrum, Patrick and Nora Ivers were among the most prolific gardeners in the project. They also were part of the team that helped design and pilot the study in 2012.
“We’ve been proud participants in and recipients of numerous rewards from this project,” the Iverses say. “First, we became better educated about sustainable gardening for ourselves and, thus, better communicators to others about what crops, soil amendment and timing were best suited to Laramie’s climate and shorter growing season. Second, by improving our yields, we could donate significant excess produce to Feeding Laramie Valley, the Laramie Soup Kitchen, friends and neighbors. Third, we enjoyed the company of other gardeners in the project with whom we exchanged ideas and harvests.”
The most productive half of the gardeners produced at rates well above those of vegetable farms in more favorable climates. Other findings included that, on average, gardeners gave away nearly a third of harvests to neighbors, friends and to formal food-sharing programs such as FLV.
The project’s director at FLV, Gayle Woodsum, says she is especially pleased with the great variety of benefits the study has brought, and will continue to bring, to the Laramie community.
“Team GROW participants not only have definitively laid to rest the inaccurate myth that valuable quantities of produce can’t be grown here, but have also shown that community members have the interest in and ability to take leading roles in designing and utilizing research to address pressing local needs,” Woodsum says.
Shannon Conk, the lead author of the paper, is a recent master’s degree graduate from the Division of Kinesiology and Health who studied with Porter. This study is the first to calculate harvest values in nutritional terms; to quantify how gardeners used their harvests, a particularly important contribution of the pilot team to the design; and to quantify harvest results in such a challenging (4b) plant hardiness zone. That last point means that these results help to map a climatic-related “floor” for the productivity potential of gardens for nearly the entire continental United States.
Team GROW results also were used to calibrate garden sizes for a subsequent community-based study, Growing Resilience, which is assessing health impacts of home gardens in a UW/Wind River Indian Reservation partnership.
Even in Wyoming’s tough climate, gardeners produced a nutritionally meaningful portion of a household’s vegetable needs. Also, like perhaps gardeners everywhere, they shared their harvests with their neighbors. This implies that supporting people who wish to garden should become an integral part of our nation’s public health strategy for enabling and encouraging people to eat vegetables, project organizers say.
Team GROW was funded as part of the larger “Food Dignity” project (www.fooddignity.org), supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant No. 2011-68004-30074 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture under the Food Security Challenge Area Program.