Clark County program helps low-income people learn to nurture produce

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter



Growing vegetables takes seeds, soil, sun, water — and consistent effort.

That can be tough for people juggling family and work responsibilities.

Bruce Hall is there to cheer them on.

The retired police lieutenant and master gardener volunteers his time as a mentor as part of Clark County Public Health’s Growing Groceries program.

The program is part of a loose affiliation of community efforts that aim to help low-income people feed themselves from their gardens. He’s one of 57 volunteers helping 802 gardeners.

Gardening tips

Bruce Hall, a gardening mentor with Clark County Public Health’s Growing Groceries program, offers these tips for gardening intensively in a small raised bed according to the square-foot gardening method:

• Avoid plants that tend to be invasive, because they will take over the plot. Oregano, mint and strawberries are examples of plants that should be confined in a separate container.

• For tomatoes, choose a determinate variety that won’t overtake the raised bed.

• Try for successive plantings. When lettuce and spinach bolt in the heat of summer, pull them out and plant beans or squash.

• To deter slugs, place copper strips around the perimeter of the garden bed. Other ways to keep slugs from your veggies include placing a dish of beer in the garden, or spreading oyster shells or coffee grounds around plants.

• Now is a good time to plant bok choy, kale, endive, lettuce, bush beans, kohlrabi, green onions, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, chard, peas, carrots, brussels sprouts and other cold-weather veggies.

• Check out Mel Bartholomew’s books on square-foot gardening, the method he popularized, for more details.

“It’s a win-win-win thing,” Hall said. “It’s a lot cheaper to grow (produce) than buy it. There’s a whole lot of soil that’s being wasted that could be growing food for people who can’t afford to go down to the farmers market. They could be growing their own stuff one way or another.”

He spends Wednesday afternoons most weeks at Aurora Place apartments in Vancouver, where several residents have 4-foot-by-8-foot raised-bed garden plots. He answers questions about slugs, watering and other gardening quandaries.

Ultimately, the work falls to the apartment residents.

“They have to take responsibility for the garden,” Hall said. “If they don’t water, stuff doesn’t grow or it burns up.”

Some residents lose interest, or other demands keep them away from the garden, and their veggies wither and go to seed. Other plots brim with lush veggies.

Corn rose high in Kathryn Hallock’s plot, which was also filled with strawberries and tomatoes. The 65-year-old retiree enjoys working in the garden with her 10-year-old granddaughter. She hopes to at least get a salad or two out of her plot.

“It’s more of a fun thing than helping with the grocery bill,” she said.

Another resident, Jeff Forney, 30, said he had great luck with his plot last year, but has been disappointed this summer.

“It’s kind of piddly this year,” he said. He blamed the cold, rainy spring, and his divided attention. He also cultivates a larger garden at his parents’ house. Last year, the raised garden at the complex helped with the grocery bill for his family. This year, he has emphasized growing vegetables from seeds.

Whatever the success or failure of any given plot, Hall keeps his protégés looking ahead. On a recent visit, he brought a slip of paper for a gardener with a new baby, who hasn’t had much time for his summer crops.

It was a list of veggies to plant now for a fall harvest.