West Allis — It started as an idea five years ago.
After witnessing the success of community gardens elsewhere, a few West Allis organizers explored the possibility of bringing one to the city.
There were a few snafus along the way, but this year marked the official debut of a designated spot where West Allis and West Milwaukee residents could put their green thumbs to work. As the summer winds down, the fruits — or rather, vegetables — of participant's labors are sprouting above the soil.
In its inaugural year, the West Allis Community Garden featured 40 plots at Rainbow Park, 700 S. 119th St. Each participant paid between $20 and $30 for the season to have a piece of the space.
"While it started out as just an idea, the reality is it took a lot of finalizing to see it through," Mary Koller, a public health nurse with the West Allis Health Department, said.
The city's health agency is overseeing the community garden — in part as a gesture toward promoting a lifestyle marked with eating nutritious foods and being active.
"I do think this is an effective way for people to eat healthy," Koller said. "Gardening itself is very healthy because you exercise as you start planting."
Enthusiasm this year has been strong, Koller said, and she attributed a strong collaborative effort toward the success of the community garden. All of the plots were sold before this year's planting season began.
"There's been a lot of excitement as people have seen what has been growing," she said. "When you think about it, it really blows your mind. There's this feeling of accomplishment when something grows."
A full gamut of produce has been grown, including such traditional staples as tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, zucchini, broccoli and beans. Other veggies have included pumpkins, watermelon, sunflowers, corn, cabbage, kale and spaghetti squash.
"People have definitely been taking their plots and making them all their own," Koller said.
In addition to input from the health department, an organization known as the West Allis-West Milwaukee Community Garden Committee was formed several years ago as planning and logistics picked up steam. Additionally, the University of Wisconsin-Extension and Milwaukee County Parks have partnered in the effort.
"This has truly been a joint effort by a lot of people," Koller said. "I would say there has been a high degree of community involvement."
Philanthropy is part of the effort. The health department itself has two of the plots, and its harvest has been sent to food pantries, including one overseen by St. John Lutheran Church in West Milwaukee.
Koller said grander visions for community gardens are on the horizon. The spot within Rainbow Park is adjacent to Walker Elementary School, and Koller said there are plans to bring the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District into the fold.
"We've placed a bench in the middle of the garden so there can be a teaching area," Koller said. "We think this can be a great learning tool."
While there are no firm plans in place, Koller said there has been discussion among all participants to carve out space for additional community gardens within West Allis. A number of factors — including accessibility and a ready supply of water — will determine if additional sites are created.
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