WALLA WALLA — A local family’s altruistic gardening efforts have borne fruit in an award by a national publication.
After establishing a community food bank garden at Assumption Church with the help of volunteers, the Wenzel family — Nancy, Steve, Emma and Katie — was recently named grand prize winner in an essay contest by Family Fun Magazine about family volunteering.
The Wenzels’ interest in gardening is a lifelong pursuit.
Nancy Wenzel grew up in a logging camp in Alaska. “We had nothing. It was a one-hour plane ride anywhere,” she said. “We had to have a big garden to feed the crew. There was a brown bear that slept in the woods outside the garden. He’d sit near the garden and watch.”
Gardening was in her blood, and she never lost her love of growing things. After her family moved into the city, she still wanted to grow a garden.
“As a teenager I tore up my parents’ yard to put in a garden,” she said.
Now, the Wenzels are working to pass that love along to their children.Growing and maintaining a garden provides learning opportunities, for youngsters and adults alike.
“I have four kids; two of them like to garden,” she said. Katie and Emma help with watering and fertilizing the plants.
The vegetable garden at Assumption Church is large, with 26 raised beds. The 4-by-8-foot raised beds are easier on gardeners’ backs, and help to compensate for poor soil.
“The land is just rocks,” she said, noting the raised plots are “easier to maintain” and produce a higher yield.
Thanks to the efforts of volunteers, the garden’s plants are huge and healthy, generating volumes of produce for the food banks.
“Volunteers come in and do the work, have fun and they won’t ruin anything,” Wenzel said.
The dedication of the volunteers has resulted in a beautiful garden — visible from within Assumption church — to be enjoyed by all.
“You can sit in Mass and see the garden, it’s nice. People can come and get their high school pictures or wedding pictures taken here,” she said.
The idea for a community garden began with former Assumption priest Tim Hays, who loved gardening. The economy was tanking and Wenzel learned from many sources that a sizeable need for fresh produce existed.
The food from the garden is donated to the food bank at St. Vincent de Paul. When the garden is producing more than they can handle, they go to “Plan B,” the Blue Mountain Action Council’s gleaning program. Then the food is distributed to all the area food banks.
The prize from Family Fun Magazine was a great shot in the arm for the Wenzels and the garden. It came about naturally enough. Nancy Wenzel was in her doctor’s office one day.
“I was so sick, on a nebulizer for 20 minutes and I was reading magazines. I always loved Family Fun. I saw this contest where you could write an essay about volunteering as a family.”
She entered her story. Then she waited to hear the results. Eventually, she got a preliminary phone call, and the next day found out they had won a major prize. The winnings of $5,000 will be invested back into the garden, she said.
If the contest win is miraculous, so has been the amount of inspired help they have received. Volunteers have donated time, energy, materials and construction knowledge to put the area together and maintain it.
“Whenever we needed something, it would just show up,” she said. “These families came out to help.”
“Our statue of Mary just appeared one day. We have no idea who delivered it but it worked perfectly!” she said. “We put her on this green rock. It happened to be St. Patrick’s Day — that was not intentional. Then we found out the green rock is Corinthian granite; that was perfect. It’s our rendition of the earth.”
Wenzel acknowledged the assistance of Pat Rhoades Construction, Dave Konen and family, Charles Konen and family, Trees Inc., student volunteers from all three colleges and many more who have helped in the project.
Although Steve Wenzel doesn’t garden he does plenty of work with the project. “He does the hard labor,” Nancy Wenzel said. “He built the arbors over the gate”
The vegetable garden includes Walla Walla Sweets, of course, as well as broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, beets, carrots, peas, cucumbers and, soon, zucchini.
“We wanted large amounts of basic vegetables,” she said.
The garden is blossoming, producing a greater harvest all the time. It provides volunteers with an enjoyable activity and benefits the underprivileged in the Valley.
“We are so appreciative of all the community support and the amazing outpouring of people to help,” Wenzel said.
Donna Lasater contributed to this report. Karlene Ponti can be reached at 509-526-8324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.