The temperature was a chilly 45 degrees, and the sky was snow-day gray, but inside Renaissance Restaurant in southeast Fort Wayne on Saturday morning was a sure sign of spring.
About 30 “garden angels” gathered for breakfast to start planning this year's growing season for the Fort Wayne Urban Farm's Hunger Relief Project.
“Garden angels” are what organizer Ephraim Smiley calls the helpers at the farm's 17 acres of fresh produce plots at Fellowship Missionary Church in Fort Wayne – people who, depending on their skills and interests, do everything from run a tractor or fix a cultivator to plant, weed, harvest and deliver free vegetables to people in need.
“We're a multicultural, multicolored operation, and we're all sisters and brothers of the soil,” said Smiley, who has been involved in community garden projects for several years.
This will be the fifth year the group has been cultivating the large back lot at Fellowship Missionary – an area that previously was a site for gardens for resettled refugees from Myanmar, formerly Burma, and Africa, Smiley said.
The group grows many kinds of vegetables, including tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers and an acre of green beans. Greens are a favorite among participants – from kale, collards and turnip and mustard greens to spinach and lettuce. Some of the latter two crops, along with peas and radishes, have already been sown, members said.
This year, Smiley said, a new focus will be teaching backyard gardening. Member Rich Firestone has made instruction sheets and templates for starting seeds in a square-foot area, and another member received a grant for several backyard kits, Smiley said.
The group's food distribution is through an informal network that includes churches and members' contacts, such as shut-in senior citizens and neighbors known to need or want vegetables.
Members also deliver produce to several agencies, including soup kitchens, food banks, group homes and women's shelters.
“It's all about nobody being hungry in this community,” said Marsha Smiley, Ephraim Smiley's wife.
Gethsemane Lutheran Church at 1505 N. Bethany Lane along North Clinton Street, is one recipient. The church uses the farm's fresh and preserved vegetables in its Wednesday night free community dinners.
The church also is organizing a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for the farm's Hunger Relief Project at 6 p.m. May 5. Tickets are $5.
“She feeds 300 people at a time,” Ephraim Smiley said of Gethsemane's kitchen manager, Kathy Leigh-Manuell, who attended the meeting with her husband, Tom. “We make sure she gets all the vegetables she needs.”
Smiley said the Hunger Relief group will have educational workshops during two picnic potluck dinners this summer.
Members contribute homemade dishes made with the garden's vegetables. The events will take place 4 to 8 p.m. June 14 and July 19 at Fellowship Missionary Church, 2526 Tillman Road.
“Spring is my favorite time because you've gotten through the winter, it's nice to get outside, and you do some of your tasks and you see things turn green and come to life,” said member Mike Colbert, a retired electrical engineer.
Member Warren Crawfis was inclined to agree. It's still too early for much cultivation, but that ought to start in earnest by April 15.
“It's certainly a joy to work in a garden and see the results go to people in need,” he said.
Call 431-6913 for more information about the Fort Wayne Urban Farm's Hunger Relief Project.