A new state-funded community garden will sprout in Norristown

Woodchips surround the garden plots to keep out weeds at the Norristown Sprouts Community Garden. (Montgomery County Office of Public Health)

Woodchips surround the garden plots to keep out weeds at the Norristown Sprouts Community Garden. (Montgomery County Office of Public Health)

Norristown residents are now within reach of a new Pennsylvania Department of Health-sponsored community garden — and plots are currently available for use.

“The purpose of the Norristown Sprouts Community Garden will be to improve access to fresh local produce and to promote healthy eating,” said David Genova, director of health promotion for the Montgomery County Office of Community Information and Education.

The idea for the initiative was sparked last November, after news circulated that the Norristown Community Garden might be facing eviction from its spot at the old Norristown State Hospital grounds, Genova said. His department wanted to help and had prior experience setting up smaller community gardens, so the team jumped into action.

After conversations with municipal leaders, the county scoured the area for empty lots, but to no avail — it was back to the drawing board. That’s when the team approached Eisenhower Science and Technology Leadership Academy and got clearance in March to use parts of the school’s land.

Layout of the community garden. (Montgomery County Office of Public Health)

“As far as the last few months, we’ve really been focused on building the garden,” said Shanita Fields, a community health educator for the county Office of Community Information and Education. “We have community members, even other county employees, come in and help us build up the plots, getting the soil where it needs to be, and getting everything laid down.

With funding from the state Department of Health’s Preventative Health and Health Services Block Grant, the Norristown Sprouts Community Garden, located at 1601 Markley St., has finally gained some traction.

At its heart, a community garden is a place where a neighborhood comes together for the sake of planting and growing food. But the organizers of this project have another overarching goal.

“Our vision is a lot broader than that,” Genova said. “We want to create a unique and inclusive space. We want a space for children and adults to be able to explore, practice teamwork — empower us to be supporters for our own community and for ourselves.”

Shanita Fields is the Garden Coordinator (Montgomery County Office of Public Health)

As the garden coordinator, Fields is planting the seeds to ensure that happens. Soon, she expects to start educational programs such as garden book reading and nutrition and cooking workshops, so that people have a better idea of what they can do with the things they are growing.

Fields also is thinking about food preservation workshops, so that people learn how to put up fruits and vegetables and store them for later use.

Garden plots filled with rich soil and compost. (Montgomery County Office of Public Health)

Norristown Sprouts Community Garden sits on 5,000 square feet, and there are 40 raised garden beds, including three that will be dedicated for middle school students and four communal beds.

“This is open to the community. We don’t want it to be a burden on them. So this is completely free,” Fields said.

To obtain a plot or even volunteer at the site, you must fill out an application on the county’s website. To be eligible for a plot, you just have to be a Norristown resident over the age of 16.

“It is very quick and easy to fill out the application. It’s a fillable form, so very easy. I get the form, get a chance to look over it, and then I will contact the individual and set up a time for them to have orientation at the garden, get a chance to see it, meet the other gardeners, choose their plot numbers,” Fields said. “And then we will go from there, just making sure I have the proper paperwork from them, such as their child clearances, and having them sign some of the agreements.”

Community Members, staff from Montco HHS, the Director of Health Promotion and the Garden Coordinator from left to right. (Montgomery County Office of Public Health)

Orientation for gardeners is expected to begin in late August. Fencing for the gardening is expected to be completed by September.

Fields wants the first batch of community members to get started soon, so that they’ll be able to take advantage of the fall harvest.

“By the end of October, people should be able to have had something that came up, like they can do lettuce or Swiss chard or something like that. So that is the goal: to have people garden around the orientation time up through like that last frost date,” Fields said.

Judge Alfarano and his District Court 38-101 team join the Garden Coordinator and a Community Member. (Montgomery County Office of Public Health)

Though the garden vision may appear to be complete, Genova said there are still big plans for filling up the space. He anticipates a second phase of construction that will allow for the addition of a small outdoor classroom, a compost area, rain barrels, and even a kiosk area stocked with instructional gardening information.

Genova said he expects many of the garden plots to be filled by next spring, and some of the construction to be finished. So far, the Norristown Sprouts Community Garden has had only a soft launch, but that could change.

“We plan on having a ribbon-cutting ceremony. More than likely, it won’t be until spring of next year,” Genova said.

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