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'Dirt therapy' comes to Bel Air with St. Matthew Church community garden

St. Matthew has a place for people to get their hands dirty and grown their own food

Onions are popping out of the ground. Tomato plants are getting taller each day. The tomatoes, peppers, squashes are all starting to grow.

All these vegetables and more can be found in the new community garden at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, a joint project between the church and the Town of Bel Air.

"We feel St. Matthew is a community center. More than 50 groups meet here regularly for all kinds of events. We feel that's what the church history was, a community center. So this is being part of the community," the Rev. Blaise Sedney, St. Matthew's pastor, said.

For the town, the community garden helps meet its sustainability initiative so residents can gain access to their own food support, Kevin Small, director of planning and community development for the Town of Bel Air, said.

The Bel Air garden is one of several community gardens across Harford County, including in Havre de Grace and Edgewood.

In Bel Air, town leaders wanted a community garden, but they didn't have the space; St. Matthew did and the partnership was born.

"It helps get access to healthy vegetables close by. It's something they can control, learn and produce their own food," Small said.

People don't always have places to grow their own vegetables; this provides that space. He said he was excited by how many plots St. Matthew was able to create.

"We're really happy with how it turned out. They've really done an exceptional job," Small said. "We're hoping other folks see that and take their lead."

Sedney, too, is pleased with how the garden is coming together.

"It's neat to see the whole thing work. Friendships are being made; it's become a good gathering place," he said.

Space needed

The Town of Bel Air and the church have been talking about a community garden for a number of years. It wasn't until this year, however, that it finally came to fruition.

St. Matthew and its property were annexed by the town in 2010. Part of the annexation process included a requirement for sustainability plan and what town residents and town officials really wanted was a community garden. But the town didn't have anywhere to build one.

Sedney and his wife, who are parents of eight children, recently downsized, moving from a large property in Forest Hill to the house he grew up in on Gordon Street, after his mom passed away.

"I grew up in Bel Air; we had a garden behind our house. Everybody had a garden on Gordon Street," Sedney said.

But coming from Forest Hill, where Sedney also raised alpacas, they needed more room than what they had at Gordon Street. A woman in the church also wanted a place to plant a garden but had no where to do it.

So Sedney and Small began talking and Sedney offered the church's property, which this year has been laid out in 60 individual garden plots.

Each plot is 15 by 15 feet, with 3-foot-walkways in between, and gardeners can lease up to two for $20 each.

To get ready

The garden site had been an open field. A farmer in Forest Hill plowed it in fall, to prepare the soil ahead of time. He came back in the spring and tilled it. It's been tilled by hand a few more times.

Different volunteer groups - Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, church volunteers - spent hours doing preliminary work, which included removing rocks and weeds and hauling them outside the garden, putting up the fence and chicken wire, staking out the plots, among other things.

"They've been valuable," Sedney said of the volunteers.

At least 50 of the 60 plots have been reserved. Anyone interested in planting any remaining plots can contact the church at 410-838-3178.

"It's going well I think. My goal was if we got half of them we were doing well this year," Sedney said

The garden site can be enlarged, if community interest warrants it.

The gardens are being watered from a faucet by the church, but the hope is to build a cistern to store the rain that comes off the sanctuary roof and make it the main water source for garden.

"It's not done yet, but we figured out how," Sedney said.

Other than $500 in the church's budget that will cover part of the cost of the cistern, creating the garden has been funded mostly through grants from the Greater Bel Air Community Foundation, which donated $6,700; The Home Depot, which provided a free shed and tools; and Constellation Energy, which donated $500.

Sedney has two plots where he planted Roma beans, tomatoes, peppers, regular green beans, zucchini, squashes, cucumbers.

His family cans 300 jars of tomato sauce every year, so they need lots of tomatoes.

"It's quite a production," he said.

Family affair

The Wehmer family belongs to St. Matthew and heard about the garden. They've leased two plots for the summer and have made tending to their garden a family affair.

A couple times a week Rick and Beverly Wehmer and their 15-year-old children, Samantha and Sean, pack up their car with a wheelbarrow, watering can, rakes and shovels and drive from their home in Cedar Day Estates to St. Matthew to check on their crops and do whatever work needs to be done. Each visit is about an hour.

"We want to make sure everything is still alive," Sean said.

They fill up the wheelbarrow with water from the faucet up at the church, then take it down to their plots and use the watering can to water their plants.

They're more than happy to share their supplies with their garden neighbors.

"There's really a community, camaraderie aspect to it. Every time we come we meet someone new," Beverly Wehmer said.

Their garden at home didn't work out so well, Samantha said, while her father added the space at St. Matthew is nice and open with a lot of sun.

"It's good from that standpoint," Rick Wehmer said.

The Wehmers have two plots and have planted a whole host of crops: tomatoes, peppers, oregano, rosemary and other spices, onions, beans, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, watermelon and antelope.

"We're always out here watering, pulling out weeds, trying to make sure everything is good," said Samantha, who with her brother is finishing ninth grade at Patterson Mill High School.

Beverly Wehmer said their children wanted to plant the gardens as much as she and her husband did.

"It's fun to come and see what's coming up," she said.

Gene and Pat Wood live across Route 22 from St. Matthew, in Scottsdale condominium complex.

Pat Wood's plants are just beginning to come up in her single plot, she said recently during a visit to check on her crops

She was supposed to partner with a friend, but her friend hasn't been able to come, so she asked her husband, Gene, to help.

"We both like to garden, do stuff like that," Wood said. "I miss the dirt; this is dirt therapy."

In her plot she planted tomatoes, squash and green peppers, among other things. That was the second round – all the rain this spring washed out most of her initial plantings.

But that's OK with her.

"I love it, I love it, I love it," she said. "Just being outdoors and watching everything grow."

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