The Story of the Traveling Tomatoes

Tomato seedsOnce upon a time…well, this past winter actually…Carmen Schroeder was planning the upcoming growing season for her plot at The Community’s Garden. She wondered what she could do with all of the leftover tomato seeds from the previous growing season.

Carmen, a former Registered Dietician at Door County Medical Center (DCMC) as well as a gardener and member of The Community’s Garden Board of Directors, discussed what to do with her daughter Ericka and they came up with a great idea - to take the seeds to the Skilled Nursing Facility so the residents could grow them in the activity center. Ericka is also a gardener at The Community’s Garden and a Registered Nurse at the DCMC’s Pete and Jelaine Horton Skilled Nursing Facility.

Carmen discussed the idea with Jenny Spude, a fellow Registered Dietician, The Community’s Garden Board of Directors President, and Food Service Director with the Sturgeon Bay School District. As they talked, they recalled the tiered growing cart that belonged to the medical center. The large four-foot-wide cart, with four layers of trays and grow lights above each tray, is a warm, moist environment for the seeds to grow.

In early April, Carmen and Ericka rolled the growing cart into the activity center at the Skilled Nursing Facility. The cart became a center of new life in the bleak months of early spring. Working with the activity coordinator, Jodi Falk, residents gathered around the cart, delicately dropping the seeds into the growing medium and relating stories of past seasons and of time spent gardening and growing food.

Tomato sproutsUnder the watchful eyes of the residents, the plants grew to maturity. They grew tomatoes, and flowers, too; zinnias, marigolds and morning glories. Throughout April and into May the residents of the Skilled Nursing Facility lovingly tended to the plants until all four levels of the growing cart overflowed with life.

By June, the tomatoes and flowers were ready to find a permanent home. Carmen realized they had a bumper crop! What were they going to do with all of these plants? Like the seeds that had initially been spread throughout the growing cart, the plants were now spread throughout the community. Some plants were sold to staff and residents’ families at the Skilled Nursing Facility. Some were sold to The Community’s Garden gardeners—many of whom were hospital employees—and some were sold to the hospital’s patients and their families. All proceeds returned to the Skilled Nursing Facility activity center.

Tomato plants ended up being spread across seven plots at The Community’s Garden and the remaining marigolds were planted around the garden’s welcome area. By late summer the marigold’s vibrant orange and yellow flowers were covered in butterflies.

Meanwhile, down the street at the Sturgeon Bay School District, high school students had been busy planting in the school greenhouse all year as part of their sustainable living class. At the end of the school year, around the time the tomato plants were being planted in The Community’s Garden, the students decided to donate the extra basil they had grown to the garden as well. The basil needed to get into the ground quickly, so Carmen planted it next to the marigolds in the garden’s welcome area.

The harvest this summer was incredible

It was one of the most bountiful that Carmen could remember—the plants were big, they were healthy, and they produced better than anything she had seen in years past. It was a great growing season.

Throughout the summer season, gardeners harvested the basil they received from the high school. They made all sorts of food to share with family and friends—they made pesto, they dehydrated it to use as an herb and they also put it in sauces.

Tomatoes grown at The Community's GardenAs the season ended, the overabundance of tomato plants had produced an overabundance of tomatoes! Carmen decided to reach out to the school district. She brought over half a bushel—over 30 pounds—of tomatoes to the school. The tomatoes were added to school lunches, added to sandwiches and enjoyed by all the students, some of whom had planted the basil earlier in the year.

An interesting relationship developed during the growing season—a relationship between the life cycles of the tomato plants and the life cycles of the different people tending to them. At the beginning of the growing season in the early spring, residents of the Skilled Nursing Facility tended the seeds of plants at the earliest stage of life. As the seeds grew into young plants, they were transplanted into The Community’s Garden by gardeners in the middle of their growing season. Then, as the plants grew to maturity and bore fruit, that fruit was enjoyed by those enjoying the earlier years of life.

As the autumn neared, everyone involved in that abundant season looked on with delight as produce grown by the community was shared throughout the community. The residents of the Skilled Nursing facility were able to watch as their tomatoes traveled to friends and relatives, to The Community’s Garden, to the kitchen of Sturgeon Bay School District and into the meals of the Sturgeon Bay community’s children.

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