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Over the Garden Fence

Where gardeners come to find out what's happening out in the yard.

We are in the News!

Posted by Sarah Navrotski -

Area Gardeners Reap the Rewards of Green Thumbs, Good Intentions

By Joan Cary, Special to the Tribune

July 18, 2012

Glen Ellyn gardener Art Feid was out early one hot morning last month, stepping lightly on soil so loose you could dig a hole with your hands. Slowly and steadily, he put cages around his tomato plants, careful not to snap any stems with his nimble fingers.

There is no way the 98-year-old master gardener can eat all of the tomatoes or other vegetables and fruits he grows in his backyard. But he knows that others can.

And so every year on March 30 Feid starts the seeds for his garden under lights in the basement, knowing the fragile plants will be transplanted twice before actually making it into the ground. And every year his knowledge, dedication and sweat allows him to bring hundreds of pounds of produce to the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry at Grace Lutheran Church.

"I can't help it," he said later, sitting in the shade at the picnic table he built. "Gardening is in my blood."

It is a labor of love, not just for gardening but for his community. And the message behind what Feid has been doing for years now is growing like a weed. Every year more gardeners donate their sweat equity to community gardens, and their backyard bounty to feeding the local hungry.

"That's a great thing," Feid said. "I was just doing it before everybody really thought about it."

Last summer the retired contractor had 55 tomato plants and 300 onion sets among other plants, and he took 486 pounds of produce to the pantry.

This year, Feid had health problems in the winter and new ones more recently. He cut back to 15 tomato plants and planted no onions, and he is getting help tending the garden from his nephew, Wayne Ruder, and Wayne's wife, Mary Lou, from Sugar Grove. But it's still a diverse and potentially bountiful garden that also includes beans (wax, pole and bush), peppers, cucumbers, squash, cabbage, beets, parsley, horseradish, basil, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, peaches and apples.

And there is nary a weed to be found among the perfectly tended plants. Just a rigged-up watering system and a neatly arranged tool shed where everything is in its place.

Feid is a wealth of tips and practical advice about garden plants and the bugs and blights that come with them. The Ruders say he is also an excellent woodworker and cook. He makes a mean, hot horseradish; sauce from his La Roma tomatoes; and crust from scratch for his cherry and apple pies.

He has been a gardener for more than 50 years and a master gardener through the University of Illinois Extension service for 26 years. Last year he earned a 25-year pin and the Emeritus award.

"That means I don't have to take any exams anymore," he said with a laugh.

Master gardeners are required to perform 30 hours of volunteer work and take 10 hours of continuing education each year to maintain their master gardener status.

Sarah Navrotski, master gardener program coordinator in DuPage County, said Feid won the 1996 Illinois Outstanding Master Gardener award, having given 180 hours of community work and more. In 2004, when he was 90, he was honored with the Sustained Excellence Award.

Feid has taken more than 2,500 pounds of his homegrown produce to the pantry since 2005, when the extension service started to keep records of produce donated.

"I have known Art for 10 years, and he's just an amazing person. He is so special, such an inspiration, and the nicest guy. He gives back whenever and whatever he can," Navrotski said. "He has always shared his blackberries and raspberries with us (in the office). When you think about the number of people he has touched with his knowledge, his gardening and his willingness to share, it's overwhelming."

DuPage County master gardeners tend large community gardens in Glen Ellyn, Naperville and Downers Grove, and donate the produce to the local pantries. Navrotski said having master gardeners working in the community gives other growers the chance to stop by and ask questions. Their master gardeners speakers bureau gets more requests for talks about vegetable gardening every year.

At the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry where Feid is a regular, the early produce – lettuce, oregano, garlic and basil – has been coming in.

"We are really working hard to provide fresh, healthy food, and now it is coming from a lot of different resources," said executive director Susan Papierski. "There are a lot of people who grow these things and don't have enough people to consume it. Our clients have very little opportunity to get fresh produce like this, so they truly appreciate it."

Papierski said the number of clients continues to grow. "The demand is bigger than ever. We operate by appointment because we do not have enough space and storage, " she said. "We still turn down quite a few clients every month."

She suggests that growers with a backyard abundance call their local pantry first to find out when it is best to deliver food items.

"We never, never, never have too much," she said. "We would never, never turn down a donation."

A Web-driven organization,, connects pantries with gardeners across the country.

"This idea that I can reach into my backyard instead of my back pocket and help people has resonated with people across the country," said founder and director Gary Oppenheimer.

Gardeners with produce to donate can go to the website to find local pantries. Pantries can register with the website to help gardeners locate them.

The core message: "No food left behind."

Oppenheimer, of New Jersey, came up with the idea in March 2009 and rolled it out two months later. More than 5,200 pantries in all 50 states are on their registry, including 187 in Illinois. His goal is to see the national total increase to 10,000 pantries. He estimates there about 30,000 food pantries across the U.S.

There's no need to feel left out if you do not have a green thumb or a large garden. A food donor can have something as simple as a surplus of parsley growing on the kitchen windowsill, he said.

Robert Nevel, who founded and directs the Food Justice and Sustainability Program at KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue in Chicago's Hyde Park-Kenwood area, is familiar with Oppenheimer's efforts.

Nevel started vegetable gardens at 51st Street and Greenwood Avenue in 2009, and his group is now one of the largest growers and donors of food in Chicago. The idea is to "grow food, give it away, and teach other people how to do that," he said.

He is appreciative of the 200-plus interfaith volunteers who tend more than 5,000 square feet of cultivated land and grow 30 varieties of produce. On any given Sunday morning, 12 to 20 volunteers work the gardens and harvest produce for five hot-meal programs and a shelter for women and children in Chicago.

After the first two gardens were established at the synagogue, which is across the street from President Barack Obama's Chicago house, Nevel and others helped establish gardens at neighboring houses of worship: Kenwood United Church of Christ and St. Paul & the Redeemer Episcopal Church.

Last year Nevel's group won the mayor's award for the best vegetable garden in Chicago. Now they are harvesting collards, kale, chard, beets and carrots.

"We have the potential to turn unproductive landscape into highly productive landscape," Nevel said. "Gardening has the potential to grow good soil, good food and good community."

Occasionally, Oppenheimer said, people will ask, "How do you know they (the pantries) are going to use the food?"

"That," he said, "is an unnecessary and almost a fool's question."

It's one that Art Feid wouldn't ask. Feid, according to his nephew, is already plotting out next year's garden and the bounty it will provide.

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