By Wade Coggeshall
INDIANAPOLIS — Spring doesn't officially begin for a couple weeks yet, but Westsiders will need to get their green thumbs ready before then.
Chapel Rock Christian Church's non-profit group Go Love Indy will once again host the Westside Community Gardens on the site of the former Bridgeport Elementary School at 8650 W. Washington St. For $20, a resident gets a 20x30-foot plot in which to plant vegetables and whatever else. They can sign up at one of two meetings - 7 p.m. March 11 or 20 at Chapel Rock Christian Church, 2020 N. Girls School Road.
This is the third year for the community gardens. Go Love Indy, which performs various philanthropic projects, thought a community garden would be a nice addition to the area.
"Everyone's taken to the program really well," said Kelly Barber, who serves on the Westside Community Garden Council.
They started with about 24 plots and are now up to 40.
"It's almost doubled in size since it started," Barber said.
Every available plot gets booked as soon as they're available too. Barber says one will occasionally become available if someone can't tend it for whatever reason, but that's rare.
"Usually by the time it gets to planting, all the plots are spoken for," she said.
They get a variety of participants: single parents, families with young children, friends who go in on a plot together. Barber says there was an Indian family one year that planted some really exotic crops.
"That makes it fun, when you get to learn about new things," she said.
That's one aspect to the community garden - it's another way to socialize. And this group tends to become close over the course of the growing season.
"Anyone who's new is automatically taken in because it's a common interest," Barber said. "They're all there for the same reason. It's like a fellowship. People go from garden to garden to learn about new things and get tips."
That's helped Barber and her husband. They had never planted sweet potatoes before, so they bought a pot of seeds one year. They were going to plant it as is, but another gardener told them there were 30 plants in it and they needed separating.
"We ended up with tons of sweet potatoes," Barber said. "We would've had a mess if we had planted them in one mound."
It's not uncommon for every gardener to have a surplus of produce at the end of the season. Much of that ends up being donated to local food pantries. It also allows participants to sample each other's bounties.
"If someone has something I haven't tried, they may let me try it," Barber said. "If I'm growing something that someone else hasn't tried, I'll let them try it."
They have had problems in the past where passersby took the "community" part of the garden too literally and helped themselves to some of the produce. Signs have since been posted. That doesn't stop animals from eating what they want however. Barber says it's not unusual to see deer tracks in your garden.
"I didn't know rabbits ate tomatoes, but apparently they do," she said.
While the community gardens attract those with green thumbs, there are other reasons why people enjoy growing their own food.
"The price of vegetables has gotten outrageous," Barber said. "With a little work on your own, you basically get free vegetables this way."
Plus, it's a peaceful hobby. While Barber likes the social aspects, she will also tend her plot when no one else is there.
"I can get some sun and reflect on what's going on in my life - just spend some quiet time," she said. "It's a relaxing hobby. There is some hard work, but with a lot of reward."
New sections have been plowed at the site each year. Barber thinks if the whole property isn't used this year, it will be in 2014.
"It's close to maxing out," she said.