Sowing Community, Growing Gardens

McKelvey leads Community Garden Coalition into 30th season


Like many folks new to community gardening, Bill McKelvey did not have a banner year in his first season. He was asked to leave a community garden in Seattle after he spread compost on his plot and then forgot about it.

Bill McKelvey, project coordinator for the Food Pantry Nutrition Project, visits a local farm. Photo by Jill LuchtBill McKelvey, project coordinator for the Food Pantry Nutrition Project, visits a local farm. Photo by Jill Lucht

When he moved back to his hometown, Kansas City, Mo., he decided to give community gardening another go. A friend was a garden leader just a few blocks from his apartment. McKelvey gardened there for a year then moved to mid-town Kansas City near a garden that had been abandoned. McKelvey approached the church that owned the land and volunteered to lead the garden in exchange for a plot. This time, community gardening took root. McKelvey expanded and improved the garden for the next five years before moving to Columbia in 2005 to study rural sociology and community development in graduate school.

At the initial graduate student meeting, Jere Gilles, associate professor of rural sociology in CAFNR, stressed the importance of connecting with the community outside of school. The idea resonated with McKelvey, project coordinator for the Food Pantry Nutrition Project, and he got involved with the Community Garden Coalition, or CGC.

The CGC is a not-for-profit volunteer group that provides support, supplies and garden plots to community gardeners, seeking especially to help lower-income individuals, the elderly, people with disabilities and children and others who might not be able to have a garden on their own.

In 2007, McKelvey became board president and has remained in that role since, where he has overseen the growth of both the number of gardeners and gardens in Columbia and Boone County, including school and youth gardens.

“I gain a sense of satisfaction knowing that there’s all this gardening activity going on in Columbia,” McKelvey said. “I can’t take credit for all of it, but I feel like I’ve played some part in helping to facilitate that and that feels good.”

Carrots from McKelvey's garden. Carrots from McKelvey’s garden.
Pompeii tomatoes that McKelvey grew last season. McKelvey enjoys pursuing another of his passions--photography--in and around Columbia's community gardens. Pompeii tomatoes that McKelvey grew last season. McKelvey enjoys pursuing another of his passions–photography–in and around Columbia’s community gardens.

In addition to roma tomatoes, cabbages, sweet potatoes, and kale, McKelvey enjoys seeing relationships grow as well.  “You learn a lot about people through community gardening because gardens attract lots of different types of people — different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. One of the really cool things about it is that it takes you out of your normal friend/family circle and gives you an opportunity to hang out with people who may not be like you at all,” McKelvey said.

Of course, the fresh food is good is too. McKelvey said he enjoys making frittatas with various combinations of greens, onions and garlic or creating a new coleslaw recipe for a potluck.

If you’re interested in community gardening, the CGC hosts their annual Spring Thaw event at the Columbia Activity and Recreation Center (ARC) Feb. 23 from 2 p.m.-4 p.m. You can connect with a representative from one of the 30 gardens in the area and pick up seeds to get started.

Spring Ahead 

It’s not too early to be thinking about what you might grow in your garden this season. Planting dates for many cool season crops begin in March. McKelvey has a few tips to help make your experience enjoyable and fruitful.

  • Having a good hoe is critical. McKelvey recommends a stirrup hoe for weeding. “People often get overwhelmed by weeds,” McKelvey said. “If you cultivate early when the weeds are just starting to come up that will save you a lot of work in the long run.” A three-prong cultivator is also helpful for breaking up clods, which are a common occurrence in mid-Missouri’s clay soils.
  • Make sure you have room between your plants to use a hoe and to allow for optimal growth. McKelvey recommends the MU Extension Vegetable Planting Calendar for guidance in planning, planting and caring for your garden.

    Purple pac choi irrigated with a drip line. Purple pac choi irrigated with a drip line.

  • Grow what you like to eat. You’re much more likely to maintain your garden if you’re enjoying its bounty.
  • Water directly on your roots when possible. Using soaker hoses and drip irrigation are ways to apply water right where your plants need it.
  • Plan for spring in the fall. Preparing ground in the spring can be frustrating because it’s cold, wet and difficult to work. Prepare your beds in the fall by cleaning out debris, doing whatever tilling you choose to do, pulling weeds, working in compost and covering your plot with straw. When it’s time to plant in the spring your plot will already be in good shape.