City Plaza Children's Garden continues to grow

BY EMMA WILLIS | JUNE 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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A city-led project that resulted in the removal of overgrown trees outside the Iowa City Public Library is now reaping benefits for the downtown landscape while addressing local food needs and serving as an educational tool.

But a now 2-year-old urban garden may not have come to fruition if it hadn’t been for New Pioneer Co-Op’s Soilmates founder Scott Koepke.

Nearly three years ago, the head of the garden education program had operated a small stand on the Pedestrian Mall for the Iowa Arts Festival helping children plant green beans.

And with the city’s need to take down trees in a spot that provided ample sunlight, a perfect opportunity began to bud.

“That was the seed that sprouted, no pun intended,” Koepke said of the idea to start the Public Library-led Children’s Garden.

With the help of Debbie Dunn, assistant librarian for children’s services at the time, the team looked at pushing the dream into a reality.

Koepke said he hopes the children learn life skills such as patience, respect, and nurturance when tending to the garden.

The still-growing beginnings of the fresh urban garden project are kept in by small fencing, and sprouts of new germination can be seen in two beds that sit side-by-side.

After being replanted June 8 during the festival’s Children’s Day celebration, Koepke said the garden is doing well.

In all, the planting and maintenance of 22 species of vegetables and flowers cost Soilmates less than $300 in annual operating costs. With a makeup including peppers, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, and herbs, Koepke calls it a “Kitchen Salsa Garden.”

Assistant to the City Manager Geoff Fruin, said the garden has proved to be a “logical partnership” and good opportunity to expand the library to the outdoor space, while offering unique children’s programming options.

Before the start of Children’s Day festivities last year, Koepke began the intensive labor of soil preparation. Children were able to join in the first planting of the new garden on June 3.

But the garden’s efforts have not come without a set of learning curves.

After the garden’s corn suffered damage from high winds that swept through the Pedestrian Mall last summer, Koepke said more root crop have been planted this year.

“We’ve learned from last year’s mistakes,” he said. 

But not only children benefit from the services of the garden.

Once the food is ready to harvest, mature vegetables are donated to Table to Table each Wednesday. The organization then distributes food to 26 organizations throughout the Iowa City area, including the Crisis Center.

Rachael Carlson, a 2012 Children’s Day volunteer and Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature employee, said she worked alongside Koepke to plant, water, and maintain the garden throughout the year. She said she is always amazed at the number of kids that flock by the garden.

“I think it’s a great outreach piece for the library,” she said. “It’s been a way to meet members of our community.”

Children’s service librarian Katherine Habley agrees that the Children’s Garden has been an enormous success, and she noted that no damages have arisen with the garden being planted in such a busy area.

“The community has been very respectful,” she said.

Children’s services coordinator Vickie Pasicznyuk said a story-time period and outdoor gardening work are just two parts to the library’s programming.

“They get to see it from beginning to harvest,” she said. “They watch the whole cycle of growth.”

For 4-year-old Kylie Hoskins, the fun came from planting marigolds last during the garden’s inauguration.

“She loved coming back and check on it,” Twila Finkelstein, Kylie’s Grandmother said.

“It’s amazing how really important life lessons you can learn from gardening,” he said.

Sun radiating against the soil with the garden a small sign can be seen in one of the gardens, with the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” printed in different language upon its surfaces.

To Koepke this says it all.

“I’ve had a lot of parents approach me saying they started gardening at home because of what their children see in downtown,” he said. “Children are the best teachers. A common language for all people around the world is food.”

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