Lize Keller and scores of other plot renters in Port Washington’s Hales Trail Community Garden are harvesting bumper crops of vegetables and fellowship
Lize Keller knows the difference between store-bought and market-fresh produce. Her taste buds can tell.
“There’s nothing like a fresh, right-out-of-the-garden carrot or tomato. The flavor is just totally different,” she said.
Keller used to get her vegetables from the Port Washington Farmers Market every weekend and decided to try to grow some on her own at her Port home. Mother Nature had other ideas.
“Where we live we have a big problem with deer. I had tried a garden in our yard with a fence, but that did not deter them very much,” she said.
She found her solution five years ago when the Hales Trail Community Garden formed in Port Washington.
“The goal was to grow local and be able to produce from garden to table in a community environment,” garden co-director Carol Meinerz said.
Derek Strohl led the effort beginning in winter 2012, and the city liked the idea. That summer the garden was up and running on city land.
Meinerz said she was hooked as soon as she saw the concept drawing for the garden, as she faced the same challenge as Keller did in growing vegetables at home.
“The garden is fun for me and definitely useful as I really can’t plant and expect anything to make it through to harvest as I have up to 16 deer at a time eating up my plants at home,” Meinerz said.
Keller and Meinerz jumped in right away, renting two of the garden’s 70 15-by-15-foot plots next to the Ozaukee Interurban Trail for $20 each and went to work.
It turns out they also went to school. The garden has served as a learning experience, and fellow community gardeners are the teachers and students.
“We share things and everybody gets along. Almost anytime you go down there, there’s almost always someone there you can talk to,” Keller said.
Gardeners will share knowledge on how to handle various bugs and they’ll water each other’s plots when people go on vacation, she said.
As time goes on, new gardeners pass along the tips and tricks they’ve learned.
“Some gardeners are very experienced, others not so much but gain knowledge year by year like me,” Meinerz said.
Keller said tilling the soil is an important start. The garden began in a field, so Keller had to rototill twice to get the soil going.
“That’s why you kind of like to have the same plot each year because you know how it’s been taken care of,” she said.
The second year, Keller added compost.
“Each year I think gets a little better — the soil gets a little richer,” she said.
Keller also learned the time commitment. She goes to her plot every other day to water her plants. The garden has sign-up sheets for mowing the grass and filling the two water tanks the city allows from the fire hydrant across the street.
A planned 15-minute trip can last an hour.
“I didn’t know that it was going to be as much work as it is,” Keller said.
“It is a commitment, but at the same time when you see stuff coming up and what you’re growing, that kind of all goes away.”
One element never goes away, and it grows seemingly regardless of watering or weather.
“It takes a lot of weeding,” Keller said of the garden. “It’s actually more work than you think it is. ‘OK, I’m going to plant these carrots and in a couple of months I’m going to come back and pull them out.’ You’ve got the weeding and watering.”
That’s why Keller tends to her garden every other day.
“Otherwise, if you wait a week or something because you’ve had rain, then you’ve got a lot, a lot of weeds. I’d rather go every other day and pull some,” she said.
That also helps fellow gardeners’ plots.
“We’re supposed to keep it as much weed free as we can so your weeds don’t go into the next garden,” Keller said.
The garden has rules on how to manage weeds and bugs.
“We are not an organic garden, but we are a natural garden, so the sharing of weed control or composting is so beneficial when there are social gardeners who enjoy sharing knowledge,” Meinerz said.
Keller has grown a variety of vegetables including tomatoes, green peppers, onions, sugar snap peas, pumpkins kohlrabi and potatoes. Carrots are her favorite.
“They’re easy and you don’t even have to freeze them. Put them in the refrigerator in a Ziploc bag and eat them all winter long,” she said.
This year, Keller added flowers to her plot.
“I think that helps because it brings the bees in. Everything can get pollinated and stay healthy,” she said.
Planning the garden begins in winter when the family determines what it wants to grow. Keller said she has to keep in mind what grows when.
Lettuce and kohlrabi come early. Tomatoes ripen in the middle of the season and carrots in the latter portion.
“You try to have it so not everything’s ready at the same time,” Keller said.
Still, sometimes there’s an abundance, and the garden encourages participants to donate excess food.
“Quite a few of the people down there give their stuff away to the food pantry,” Keller said.
This year, there’s plenty to give. After a few tomatoes and three pumpkins last year, Keller said tomatoes are a bumper crop and she will have seven or eight home accessories for fall.
“Those (pumpkin) vines are growing into my peppers and everything else,” she said. “But it’s cool when you can go down there and harvest them when they turn orange and it’s time to decorate the house.”
Keller and her family like to try growing new plants. Her daughter tried to grow loofah sponge that didn’t turn out, “but she thought it would be fun to grow something different,” she said.
It’s a thrill when the new vegetables do sprout.
“You’ve grown something from a seed and it’s finally coming up. You get excited, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s finally happening,’” Keller said.
The rewarding experience continues as the plant reaches the dinner table.
“There’s some kind of pride in saying, ‘I grew this, and now we’re going to eat it,’” Keller said.
Meinerz, co-director Deb Postl and the board running the garden make improvements each year.
“Our biggest project this year was to repair the ‘critter fence’ to keep rabbits and smaller animals out,” Meinerz said.
Other upgrades included adding a first-aid kit and a port-a-john for anyone traveling the Ozaukee Interurban Trail.
Help has come from other sources as well.
“Now and then we have business owners who really like the idea of the garden and we have had businesses donate their time and materials over the years. It is really encouraging to have support around the area. The community isn’t just inside the fence,” Meinerz said.
Keller said those considering plots should understand the time commitment.
“It’s not difficult work. It’s just you have to be down there every couple of days to take care of it,” she said.
The finished products make the effort worthwhile.
“There’s just nothing like eating it right out of the garden. Eating that fresh, there’s just nothing like it,” Keller said.
For more information, go to the Hails Trail Community Garden’s new Facebook page under community organizations.
Image Information: Lize Keller of Port Washington and her daughter, Emily, head to the family’s plot at Hales Trail Community Garden every other day to water and weed. The fresh taste of homegrown veggies makes the work worth it, Lize said. Photo by Sam Arendt