During the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, some people turned back to the land.

Whether it was a way to keep their hands busy, connect with nature or shore up their own food supply, the idea of starting a small victory garden increased in popularity as nurseries and seed companies reportedly experienced historic levels of demand for their products.

But when some found that their terrain or yard space at home didn’t provide ideal conditions for gardening, they turned to the Manhattan Community Gardens. With land provided by the city and Riley County governments, the UFM Community Learning Center oversees two sites in south Manhattan, one at Ninth Street and Riley Lane and another at 1435 Collins Lane.

UFM started a community garden with 60 plots on Riley Lane in 1974 through a grant. It grew with the help of the Manhattan city government, volunteers, a local nursery and other donations and grants. In time, the Collins Lane location, which is open to anyone in Riley County and not just Manhattan residents, was added in 2012. Howie’s Trash and Recycling Services and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department additionally helped with that effort.

Darin Marti, a garden coordinator at the Collins Lane location, said in 2020, the gardens started with 45 open plots out of almost 300. After their first sign up for the season, they had about 20 left over, but the garden board decided to adopt the rest of them out.

“As time went on, more people kept contacting us wanting plots, and we ended up with a waiting list last year because we adopted plots out,” Marti said. “This year no plots have been adopted, and we still have a waiting list of a few.”

Marti said having a waiting list isn’t particularly out of the ordinary, but if the gardens were ever to expand — a proper discussion probably years down the road — officials would likely need to wait and see if a waiting list becomes a trend and not merely a reaction to the pandemic.

Dean Zoller, a garden coordinator for the Riley Lane site, said a few plots usually open up over the summer as people realize how much work is needed to maintain them or become busy with other life responsibilities.

The plot rental fee, which ranges in cost from about $16 to $64 and is reduced for those with low incomes, covers equipment use, so people can borrow a wide range of tools. Marti said people just need to bring seed to get started, but this year, the gardens have some on hand because the garden board purchased some with COVID-19 relief funds.

In exchange for a plot, gardeners also are expected to commit a few hours doing general maintenance work that benefit the sites as a whole.

This could include laying down wood chips on main paths, mowing, tilling, setting up and putting away hoses, weeding and more. The board used to assign group work days but with COVID-19 precautions in place, it let people work on tasks on their own time. Marti said that change has been one advantage that’s made things easier for everyone and may stay in place after the pandemic. While board members said they hope they can one day bring back social events and group activities, they don’t have plans to do so at least in the near future.

Erin Bishop, secretary of the garden board, said being able to come out and work on her garden still felt like a way to relate to others in a time when personal connection was hard to come by. Since gardening doesn’t necessitate being physically close to others, she could chat with her plot neighbors.

“I was so thankful I could garden,” Bishop said. “I was in my garden thinking, ‘How could I mentally survive this last year without my garden?’ ... It was like a chance to feel like I had a community going on in the middle of (the early days of the) pandemic where you just didn’t know; it was so new and scary.”

She said many people are open to helping others with gardening tips, and she’s learned a lot from her neighbors over the years. In addition, they often leave behind extra seeds, equipment or vegetables for others.

The board this year also began providing seminars and training sessions on how to plant and care for certain crops and plants, which have been helpful for people, Marti and Zoller said.

“I did one on planting beets and turnips, and I could not think of what to say,” Zoller said, “but people had lots of questions that were not necessarily about beet seeds. It was a small group of about 10 people, but we were busy for 45 minutes.”

Bishop said most people garden for a functional purpose though there are some who do it as a hobby. At the Collins Lane site, for example, there are people who maintain daylily and butterfly gardens.

The trio said there also are people from international backgrounds who will plant different varieties of crops or produce that don’t normally grow in the area, which is interesting to see and try.

“Some of them are students, some are permanent residents now who garden here, and they grow things that they can’t buy so we get an opportunity to see what other people eat,” Zoller said.

“Food is such a personal, cultural thing,” Bishop added. “It’s just so personal to our identity, and it’s just a wonderful place in our community that allows people the opportunity to — no matter where they live — grow what matters to them.”

The group said though it can be challenging at times, gardening your own food is a rewarding activity, and it also provides an outlet for physical activity, community interaction and a way to enjoy the outdoors. Marti said nothing tastes better than eating what you’ve grown yourself.

“The flavor’s just so much better when you’re eating a tomato ripe from the vine,” Marti said.

With the waitlist, new gardeners can expect to register for a plot during the next signup cycle, which is early 2022.

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