Cycles of change in the community garden

Two male volunteers maintain green leafy plants at the Sunset Community Garden

Empower community members to grow food, not just for themselves, but for others. It’s a simple mission with a long history. From the Victory Gardens of the world wars to the 2008 unemployment crisis to quarantine during a global pandemic, helping others obtain fresh produce in times of hardship is not a new mission but a noble one. To the volunteers of the Sunset Garden, it is goal #1.

Established in 2013, the Sunset Community Garden, originally known as the WIC Garden, sits on an unassuming quarter acre of land bordering the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment and Evergreen Hospice Care. In it, you will find 14 rows of meticulously kept fruit and vegetable plantings, each designed and maintained to grow with the seasons. As one season’s crop goes out of season, the next season’s crop is already being established.

It’s a rotational cycle that has long spelled the success of the garden’s mission of creating ample pounds of produce donated into the community, and, from a birds-eye view, it is a cycle that has reflected the continuation of the garden.

Initially the brainchild of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, the Sunset Community Garden has seen many forms of operation through its 10-year residency, leading it to where it stands today.

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” was the driving conception belief of the then-WIC Garden (Woman, Infant and Children). The idea: county staff work together with county clients to grow fresh and healthy produce that other programs could not supply. And so, the WIC Garden came to be.

Sign with information about broccoli at the Sunset Community Garden

While a successful garden, it was difficult for the women receiving WIC support to work in the garden while keeping an eye on their children. Volunteers were often unavailable during busy working hours to assist in maintenance. The community garden model began to shift form.

Johnson County K-State Research & Extension was brought aboard to provide the educational aspect of gardening. They would handle the technical expertise, and Louis Seibel, an originator of the garden, would handle day-to-day garden management. With a little bit of fine-tuning, the mission of providing fresh produce to WIC clients continued.

For many years, WIC clients continued to reap the benefits of the WIC Garden. Then, like numerous aspects of life, the onset of the COVID pandemic altered the garden’s mission and operation once again.

WIC clients would continue to benefit, but the overall purpose of the garden would be brought to a larger scale. No longer would volunteers only consist of those associated with the WIC mission, and no longer would beneficiaries only consist of WIC clients. The garden would be open to the Johnson County public utilizing services from the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. Volunteers would be from the community.

And thus, the garden took on the new moniker of the Sunset Community Garden, reflecting the main building of the Johnson County Government campus and, by effect, all those that now contribute to and benefit from the garden’s operation.

A volunteer picks apples from trees at the Sunset Community Garden

It has been great seeing the smiles on clients’ faces when they visit the ‘Nutrition Nook’ and get to pick that perfect tomato or fresh bunch of kale,” says Renee Bryant, Food Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for the Department of Health and Environment. “Our nurses and case managers can also bring a fresh bag of produce to their client home visits thanks to the hard work of K-State Research and Extension and the volunteers.”

Now a decade old, the Sunset Community Garden stands in its current version overseen by Anthony Reardon, Horticulture – Small Farms Extension Agent; Dennis Patton, Horticulture Extension Agent; and dedicated volunteers and garden managers Tony Whitman and Louis Seibel, as well as several other loyal and appreciated volunteers from the Johnson County community.

“It started as a place to help people with produce and a place to help the WIC clients,” said Seibel, reflecting on his time with the garden. “The garden operated with only four beds back then. Over time we have grown to 14.”

And “growing” is precisely what the Sunset Community Garden has continued to do. Despite relative drought conditions in 2023, the garden has kept pace with its goal of producing for the community. As of the end of July, over 2,200 pounds of produce have been donated, equating to more than 6,600 servings of food for people in the community.

With a refrigeration unit gifted by Advent Health and a produce stand within the “nutrition nook” of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, this area is the first stop for the garden’s harvests. Excess production then makes its way to various other community food pantries in the area, including Catholic Charities, The Salvation Army and New Hope.

“Johnson County Extension’s core mission is to support the local foods system and build healthy communities,” says the Director of Johnson County Extension, Tara Markley. “The Sunset Garden meets this mission by providing technical skills in how to grow produce and by partnering with the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment to get the produce into the hands of those who need it the most. It is a win/win for each organization and our community.”

Apples on a tree at the Sunset Community Garden

No gardening experience is required to volunteer at the Sunset Community Garden. The garden has often been utilized as an “entryway” for those looking to dip their toe into outdoor volunteering, including with the Extension Master Gardener program. With this model, faithful community volunteers have adopted the operation of the garden.

“It gives me a great sense of joy to be giving back to people who are in need and who may not have the resources to find this fresh food that we pull for them every week,” confides Cherie Ziegler, Sunset Community Garden volunteer. “I like being at [the Sunset Community Garden]. I like being outdoors. And I have also learned a lot about gardening for my own purposes.”

As the history of the Sunset Community Garden has shown, the garden has likely yet to see its final iteration or form. With autumn approaching, many “giant” heirloom varieties of vegetables are currently being trialed for their production potential. Still establishing, the garden’s adjacent Giving Grove orchard will begin to produce more and more for the public as it ages. More volunteers finding the garden will spark plans for continued expansion.

Like the produce of the Sunset Community Garden, the opportunities for ways to grow that produce are bountiful. It all starts with having the workforce to bring that dream to fruition.

If you find yourself “empowered” to help with the Sunset Community Garden, volunteer slots are available at Work sessions for the Sunset Community Garden are on Tuesday mornings from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at 11875 S. Sunset Dr., Olathe, Kansas. Additional dates may be scheduled when necessary, and dropins are welcome. Join us.

Learn more about the Sunset Community Garden: