County Employees Give Back With Giving Garden

The idea came to Melanie Boone on a spring-like March day, while walking outside with a few colleagues during a break – “It would be cool in the future sometime to start a garden here.” The very next day, plans were already being drawn up to start the first ever Giving Garden on the grounds of the Agriculture Service Center, home to the Fond du Lac County Land & Water Conservation Department.

Once County Conservationist Paul Tollard received approval to begin, Boone and Kelli Neitzel brought in leftover seeds from their personal gardens at home. Soon enough, plants began to grow in every window of the building. Everything from fencing and tomato cages to fertilizer, and even a hose extension was donated by numerous employees in the department. “Everyone kind of pitched in,” says Tollard. “It was neat to see.”

The Giving Garden is home to plentiful tomato plants, peas, green beans, summer and winter squash, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, and kale, all of which are harvested and donated weekly to Broken Bread, a food pantry at St. Paul’s Cathedral that serves more than 1,000 people every week.

Broken Bread coordinator Terry Hansen-Beno is very excited by the donations, especially because she can serve locally grown produce, which is not something the guests often see. “I love when [Melanie and Kelli] come in with the baskets of food,” says Hansen-Beno. “I can see the pride in their faces when they offer it. They take pride in what they have done.”

After just three weeks into the season, nearly 40 pounds of produce has already been donated. With roughly 10 weeks left in the growing season, Land & Water staff members are hoping to harvest and donate a total of 300 pounds of produce from the Giving Garden. “Fresh produce can be expensive, and giving people at the pantry an option is important,” states Boone.

 At Broken Bread, Hansen-Beno sees the impact the donations have already made. “It’s something that [the guests] are not able to get, and it’s so nutritious,” she says. “It stands out – the color and freshness. It’s so nice to be able to offer this to people who may not be able to afford it.”

The sprawling garden is primarily maintained by Boone and Neitzel, who volunteer their time during breaks and sometimes before or after work. They are both thrilled to use their talents to help make an impact in the local community. “I love to garden,” says Boone. “It doesn’t feel like work to me. We’re going to continue to give stuff until they tell us it’s too much.” The successful first few weeks already has them planning next season’s garden, and they’re hoping to start earlier to grow cold-weather vegetables and potentially expand the garden.

 “This is a great highlight for the year. [The idea] came out of nowhere and it’s been a great thing to happen on top of the great stuff we’re already working on,” reflects Tollard.

Since 2012, Broken Bread has seen a 37% increase in the number of families needing assistance. If you have unwanted produce in your garden and would like to make a donation, stop by St. Paul’s Cathedral at 51 W Division St in Fond du Lac Monday through Thursday from 9am-1pm or Fridays from 8am-8pm. 

Pictured above Kelli Neitzel and Melanie Boone working in the Giving Garden.