For over a century YMCAs across the country have eagerly delivered projects and services to educate and further the development of people in local communities. Offering a variety of activities and classes that focus on evolving skills and humanitarian work, the Wildwood Family YMCA’s Wild West Community Garden perfectly exemplifies this mission.
Established in 2011, the Wild West Community Garden has provided a peaceful place for gardening healthy and nutritional food by offering the opportunity to learn and grow within the community. Fully supported through donations and fundraising and managed by a committee of volunteers, the Wild West Community Garden focuses on the healing impact of nature. Tim Peters, executive director, hopes that, “the serene, therapeutic garden qualities help develop one’s mind, body, and spirit.” Open and accessible to everyone, whether you’re a member of the YMCA or not, Peters has observed how the Wild West Garden has safely brought together gardeners of all ages, from those new to the activity to master gardeners.
The garden started out small and has grown year over year, adding new plots and new features to serve the community. Today, the Wild West Community Garden consists of 70 communal plots, 8 children’s plots, a certified monarch butterfly migration way station, a sensory garden, a Plant-a-Row for the hungry area, and raised beds for gardeners with physical and mental disabilities. On top of the monarch butterflies, a diversity of wildlife routinely stops by the garden, such as birds, bees, bugs, and unfortunately, despite the fence surrounding the garden, the occasional hungry critter!
Jodi Smedley, Community Outreach and Garden Manager, told us that the idea for the garden started after interest arose to “grow what you eat”. Seasonal vegetables and fruits, such as tomatoes, peanuts, ground cherries, pumpkins, peppers, squash, cucumbers, lettuce came to fruition. On an annual basis, the garden donates over 3,500 pounds of food, and estimates they grew over 8,000 pounds of produce. With the vision of growing a stronger community, Smedley is proud that the garden signifies something more than just vegetables.
The Wildwood YMCA hopes the Wild West Community Garden will continue to serve as an opportunity to provide normalcy and calmness. Outside of the harvest of fresh produce, Veterans and 1st responders are offered the opportunity to visit the sensory garden to offer mental relaxation or tranquility for those suffering from PTSD. The garden space is also used by schools with programs that offer hands-on interactive based learning. There are composting, gardening, and cooking classes, as well as, senior programs, gardening camps and workshops, many of which are offered at little to no cost.
Smedley advises that one of the biggest lessons she learned from her years tending to the Wild West Community Garden was that soil is key. "Healthy soil leads to a healthy plant and the compost which STL Composing provided fed the plants rich nutrients," said Smedley. In addition, community gardens should be protected from wildlife, allowed to have ready access to resources, and most importantly, be cared for by a strong, passionate community of volunteers.
The communal spirit of the YMCA’s Wild West Garden provides its growers and visitors all that nature has to offer, the ability to feed us, to support those in need, and the realization that we all are caretakers of our community and the planet we live on. Proof that getting your hands dirty in the garden can help clear the soul and mind of the day-to-day challenges we all face, all the while, making the world a better place!