Walk down the streets of Bonners Ferry or stop to shop at places like Yoder’s Market, and you may notice small planter boxes with a variety of veggies and herbs and little green and white signs sporting a watering can that say “Little Free Garden.”
Funded by a grant from the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation, High Five! and administered by the City of Bonners Ferry, with assistance from the University of Idaho Master Gardeners and GROW!, the program partners with local businesses to provide free produce to the community through Little Free Gardens outside of businesses and organizations throughout the town.
“I was thinking what else can we do to bring gardening to the public,” says GROW! Secretary and University of Idaho Extension Educator Kate Painter. “I thought what if we had little free community gardens like we have little free libraries.” It turned out there was already a national organization called Little Free Gardens, and so GROW! and Bonners Ferry joined, becoming the first site in Idaho to offer Little Free Gardens to the community.
Painter, along with GROW! Treasurer Gerry Ann Howlett, spearhead the program. They started with 22 gardens the first year and are working to add additional gardens this season. Local businesses partner with GROW! to provide a home for the garden and their own container if they’d like (GROW! also has containers they can provide); there are funds to assist with the cost; and master gardeners help businesses to plant and care for the little garden.
“It's a cooperative program, and of course the produce is available to anyone who wants it,” says Painter. “It's fun, and I think people realize how easy it is. How much, for example, lettuce you can grow.”
GROW!, which stands for Gardens for Regional Organic Wellbeing, started in 2009 with a group of volunteers. It’s always been closely associated with the University of Idaho Extension office and the Master Gardening program, says Painter.
The nonprofit provides gardening opportunities for those without access to garden space and also provides educational opportunities to learn from various master gardeners with plots in the garden and attend classes through the extension office. “It is a really wonderful thing to have this community garden as a gardening site for our program,” says Painter.
In the early years of GROW!, there were three community garden locations. The garden now operates in just one location, on the grounds of Trinity Lutheran Church on Buchanan Street. It is always open to the public to visit and includes its own Little Free Garden that is a perennial herb garden, so visitors can come and snip some fresh herbs to take home and add to their meal. The Community Garden offers raised garden beds and ground plots for rent to the community, and this year they are finishing four new raised beds to expand the garden space.
The raised beds became essential after a disease called white onion rot was discovered in the area two years ago. The disease is very contagious and can stay in the ground for up to 20 years. GROW! successfully did remediation on the disease through the use of mustard cover crop, and the experience demonstrated how important the space was not just for providing organic produce to the community but for learning as well. “The GROW! Community Garden has been quite important in terms of disease control,” says Painter.
The Community Garden also serves as a teaching garden for the University of Idaho Extension Office, which offers classes to the community at a nominal fee to help cover expenses. “It's a really magical place to be up there,” says Painter. “All of the people I've met and the Community Garden people ... they help make all of this programming work.”
The garden site is situated right by the daycare run by Trinity Lutheran Church—an ideal location for children to learn about gardening, says Painter. GROW! does a children’s garden in the space, and master gardeners volunteer to bring the kids over and show them how to garden, ensuring a love of gardening and understanding of the benefits of fresh, organic produce is passed on to the next generation.
In addition to offering the community a space to garden and opportunities for learning, GROW! donates fresh produce to the local food bank, which serves around 500 local families every month. They’ve donated over a ton of produce each year to the food bank since 2017.
The GROW! garden is a great asset to the Bonners Ferry community in so many ways—from providing gardening space to learning opportunities and free produce for those who need it. “The fact that this community has a community garden, it's a tremendous asset and shows the spirit we have here in Bonners Ferry of self-reliance,” says Painter.
GROW! is dedicated to getting the community passionate about growing and involving all who want to help or learn. “We are always short of hands, so we'd love to have more people involved,” says Painter. To find out more about getting involved with the Community Garden, sponsor your own Little Free Garden, or see available classes, visit GROWBoundaryCounty.org.