What makes gardening at Dodge an enriching experience? The supportive community of fellow gardeners and experienced volunteers, who are always eager to get in the weeds (quite literally) and help you have a successful season.
“There’s always somebody you can ask for help or advice,” says Mary Burrell of West St. Paul. Mary has been gardening at Dodge for 26 years since her daughter was two years old. Her now-grown daughter recently moved to Rochester but brought her gardening experiences with her, growing her own produce.
Gardener Mary Burrell stands holding two large zucchini she grew in her garden plot at the Main Property in West St. Paul.
Since the mid-90’s, the community garden program at Dodge’s Main Property in West St. Paul has thrived. For $125, participants can grow their own plants in a 15x15 plot and access water, tools, and compost made right at the nature center.
Master Gardener and longtime Dodge volunteer Don Feeney finds joy in seeing families like Mary’s garden together. “You have to hope once they’re exposed to it, it’s something they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
Gardener and Navy veteran Zac Kotschwar picks some peppers in the Vet Center's garden plots at the Main Property in West St. Paul.
Gardener numbers have grown steadily at the Main Property, but this year was the first time plots sold out. Among the returning gardeners were first-timers from the St. Paul Vet Center. Outreach Programs Specialist and Air Force veteran Paul Peterson reached out to Farm Director Don Oberdorfer when he found Dodge so close to the Center. Don offered them two plots in the garden as a new space for veterans to connect and grow with each other.
“It’s not only a great garden and experience, but works with the therapeutic aspects of what the Vet Center has to offer,” shares Joyce Rudquist, Army veteran. “Gardening and getting out here gives something back. You’re able to let some worries go and be in the soil and see the fruits of your labor.”
Gardener and Army veteran Joyce Rudquist pulls weeds in the Vet Center's garden plots at the Main Property in West St. Paul.
Joyce and Paul, along with Navy veteran Zac Kotschwar and several others, have cultivated beautiful plots. Cherry and Roma tomato plants lean heavily with fruit, plentiful tangles of beans intermix with peas and carrots, and a large patch of pepper plants boast a bountiful harvest from bell peppers to Carolina reapers. Broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and more dot the edges of the plots.
Paul is especially grateful for the green space at Dodge. “The Vet Center is right in the U.S. Bank building in downtown Saint Paul. Thank goodness Dodge is here—otherwise we’d be in a concrete jungle.” Zac adds, “For some of us, it decreases anxiety to meet in an outdoor space, instead of behind four walls.”
Veterans Joyce Rudquist, Paul Peterson, and Zac Kotschwar show a day's harvest from their garden plots at the Main Property in West St. Paul.
For those who are looking for community, gardening is a great place to start.
Want to join the community garden program next year? Registration opens in January at DodgeNatureCenter.org/Garden.
If you or a veteran you know are seeking support, contact your local vet center. Counselors, groups, and other resources are available. Call the St. Paul Vet Center at 651-644-4022.
This article was originally published in the Nourish Your Need for Nature Newsletter, Fall/Winter 2023.