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Program plants seeds to meet needs

This spring, families will have a new opportunity to get their hands dirty—and to help area residents in need.

A new program, Grow For Your Neighbor, will help families plant square-foot gardens and donate part of their bounty to the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank.

The idea sprouted when Spotsylvania County resident Mary Van Slyke talked with a neighbor about the struggle to get fruits and vegetables to people who can’t afford to buy food.

“Like a lot of people, I was unaware of the huge need for fresh food for the food bank,” Van Slyke said. “They do get a lot of non-perishable donations, but fresh food is in short supply.”

Some 30,134 area residents get food from the food bank’s member agencies, mobile food pantries and other feeding programs, said Dayna Klein, major gifts, grants and fundraising manager. And when people struggle with tight budgets that leave little room for food, they often bypass fresh produce for cheaper and easier options.

“The fresher the food, the healthier and more nutritious it is for the community,” Klein said. “And the more fresh food we get into the food bank, the more we can give.”

The Fredericksburg Area Food Bank gets fresh produce from grocery stores, farmers and area gardeners. The agency also buys fruits and vegetables through Feeding America, Klein said. But there’s never enough to meet the demand.

Often, representatives from the food bank’s 74 partner agencies—food pantries, after-school programs and other nonprofits—ask for fresh produce for their clients.

So the Grow For Your Neighbor program will fill a very real need, Klein said.

Through the program, area residents will be able to order a kit for square-foot gardening, a method where gardeners plant vegetables on a grid in a raised bed. The kits will include grids, the bed, soil, a weed mat, instructions and a pledge youngsters can sign, promising to give some of the bounty to the food bank.

The Spotsylvania Farmers Market will feature donation spots throughout the growing season, so gardeners can give their bounty.

Kits need to be ordered by April 3, and will be delivered May 3 during a community event at the Fredericksburg Home Depot. The Square Foot Gardening Foundation, based in South Carolina, will be on hand to teach the growing technique.

Throughout the next week, the foundation’s employees will visit area schools to install gardens and teach the tricks of growing vegetables.

Grow For Your Neighbor may have sprouted recently, but the effort germinated years ago when Van Slyke grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where her grandfather grew cabbages, zucchini, asparagus, tomatoes, corn and herbs. Her mother canned, pickled and froze the produce, so the family could reap the rewards of the garden year-round.

Van Slyke didn’t grow up gardening herself. But she did keep a love of nature and became a biologist. Later, she passed on a passion for the outdoors with her children, teaching them to hatch ducklings and to hike.

When she learned about the need for fresh produce, Van Slyke decided to combine her gardening roots with her children’s need to nurture nature.

She also hoped the effort would provide an opportunity for children to contribute to their community—something that is often lacking in the area. At the food bank, for example, most volunteers must be 14. Parents often seek a way to teach younger children to give back.

Van Slyke was looking for options for her three children, ages 14, 12 and 9. And when she conceived the idea of Grow For Your Neighbor, she felt that youngsters could nurture both people and plants.

“There’s so much intrinsic value that comes from tending something and caring for and giving it to someone else and knowing you’ve made a difference,” she said.

Some area children are already learning those lessons. Van Slyke has arranged for students at Wilderness Elementary School to grow cabbage plants for the food bank. And classes at Ni River Middle School and the Marshall School, a private special education academy in Spotsylvania, will start planting this week.

Van Slyke hopes other schools will install gardens and donate their produce to the food bank. And she hopes to donate some kits to families in need, including those living in motels.

Michelle Swisher, the homeless student liaison for Spotsylvania County Schools, is meeting with the managers of area motels to get permission to grow donated gardens. That way, families can take ownership of their own fresh food, Van Slyke said.

As Grow For Your Neighbor burgeons, Van Slyke hopes area children will reap many rewards from the program.

“I really want them to appreciate where food comes from and that not everyone has fresh and healthy food,” she said. “And I want them to know how important it is to give back.”

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973



Want to try square-foot gardening? Kits cost $66.40 and can be ordered at At the site, users will also have the option of donating a kit or donating $25 toward the cost of a kit. Those kits will go to area families in need.

Kits include a cedar gardening box, soil, a weed mat, a grid, instructions and a pledge to donate some of the garden’s produce to the food bank.

Kits can be picked up May 3 at the Fredericksburg Home Depot. The following week, the Square Foot Gardening Foundation will be available to help area schools install gardens during the afternoons. Schools interested in growing a garden can learn more at the program’s website.



The Fredericksburg Area Food Bank is seeking area farmers interested in partnering with the agency in a gleaning program. To learn more, call 540/371-7666. And the food bank needs more volunteers. To help, email Cybele Brooks,