Ra Garden

Transportation Supervisor Matthew Hembold adjusts a growing stake for beans.

Central New York is a prime spot for finding abundant, locally grown fruits and vegetables. You see evidence of this at the many roadside garden stands and farmers markets. Contributing to the region’s bounty is a prolific garden located in the unlikeliest of places: the Gates Chili Central School District’s Transportation Department.

Growing a Vision

It started with Transportation Supervisor Matthew Hembold’s vision of providing a productive activity for his bus drivers and attendants in between their runs. An empty plot of land within the fenced-in transportation compound, adjacent to the building, caught his attention.

“It’s where extra snow gets pushed during the winter,” Hembold says. “Grass grows on it so I knew it would be okay for a garden. And at the school district we have the luxury of a tractor.”

Hembold tilled up a 20-by-50 area, purchased some seeds and posted a sign to recruit volunteers. Initially, six people expressed interest, but the project quickly took off and more joined the effort for a total of about 15 volunteers.

Growing a Community

The group planted a variety of vegetables — lettuce, green beans, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, potatoes and squash. One member even donated a scarecrow. As the garden grew, so did the advice.

“There is a diverse background of people in the busing world,” Hembold says. “We have a couple of farmers who were on hand to offer guidance.”

Volunteers handled the planning, weed-pulling, clearing of rocks, and finally, the harvesting. Everyone appreciated having something to talk about and focusing their downtime energy on the garden, rather than work stress. The gardeners particularly enjoyed sharing what they were doing with all their vegetables. Some brought in zucchini bread. And in September, Hembold harvested five pounds of dilly beans, which he and his wife, Aimee, canned to gift to the Transportation Department staff. The shared experience cultivated a stronger team within the department.

“The garden brought us together and taught us to help one another while we got to know people in different ways,” says Mike Sandwick, bus monitor, attendant and garden volunteer. “It made us more of a family.”

Bus driver Lisa Jacobs shares Sandwick’s outlook. “It brought us together as a team while giving back to a lot of people,” she says.

The community component was Hembold’s favorite part of the experience. “Seeing people enjoy themselves and interacting was very rewarding,” he says. “That and the vegetables!”

There was another benefit to having such a happy team of volunteers: It created an extremely well-tended garden without a rock or weed in sight. In turn, the plants thrived.

Growing Health

The garden produced more than a robust supply of produce. It grew good health. Having a regular supply of fresh, home-grown vegetables encouraged people to eat healthier. It also kept people active and increased their time spent outdoors.

“It was so nice to go outside,” Jacobs says. “I tried something new that I normally wouldn’t spend the money to try.”

Sandwick, who loves eating vegetables, says he likes knowing the exact source of everything he harvested. He is hoping the garden can grow even bigger.

Growing Bigger

According to Hembold, a bigger garden is the plan. He’s heard many requests to add corn and pumpkins to the mix. The 2017 inaugural garden was planted right before Memorial Day, but Hembold plans to follow recommendations to plant earlier with seeds. It’s no surprise that the gardeners have such enthusiasm to go bigger and better next year.

“I have a small home garden and I can say that my work one is doing much better,” he says. “I want transportation departments in other districts to start gardens. It’s very rewarding.”