Church members to build keyhole garden at Rugg Elementary

Keyhole gardens can help unlock access to vegetables for urban “food deserts,” according to Wayne McConnell.

On Saturday, Sept. 6, McConnell will be leading members of First United Methodist Church Alexandria (First UMCA) in creating a keyhole garden at L.S. Rugg Elementary School as part of a Cornucopia Project to allow the students and congregation to participate in the process of growing their own vegetables. Construction times are scheduled for two shifts, at 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and at 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., at the school located at 1319 Bush Ave.

“We’re excited about our partnership in working with First United Methodist Church Alexandria in creating the garden and the students are looking forward to being a part of this community project and growing the vegetables,” said Vickie Smith, principal at Rugg, when contacted Friday, Aug. 29.

A keyhole garden is a circular raised bed with a path to the center for access to a compost basket that allows water to flow into the soil to reach the roots of the plants — from above, it looks like a keyhole or a pie with a slice cut out.

McConnell, 63, a retired teacher for the Rapides Parish School System and First UMCA member, mentioned to the Rev. Donnie Wilkinson, First UMCA senior pastor, that the church needed to become involved in community gardening.  “I have always had a passion for gardening,” McConnell explained.

McConnell’s original concept was to build a cross-shaped community garden on the lot across from the church on 2727 Jackson Street next to the church’s parking area, with raised beds built out of red cedar with pergolas over them, plus a keyhole garden tucked into each corner of the cross.

But McConnell rethought his original concept when he realized one large centralized community garden on church property would cost between $4,000 and $5,000 to build while multiple keyhole gardens created in community neighborhoods where they are needed only cost about $200 each to build.

Among McConnell’s ideas he shared with Rev. Wilkinson was a DVD extolling the virtues of keyhole gardens built in Clifton, Texas, by Dr. Deb Tolman, who has a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences/Resources and Geography from Portland State University. Images of keyhole gardens can be seen online.

“She got so enthused, she put 17 of them on her property in central Texas, which as we all know is very hot and dry,” McConnell said. Keyhole gardens require little moisture “and she had planted over 170 tomato plants at one time in one garden,” he said.

McConnell started thinking about “food deserts” or areas that lack grocery stores selling fresh produce, such as Swiss chard, lettuce, tomatoes or zucchini, which offers better nutrition than canned or processed foods.

McConnell realized keyhole gardens like those also built by African humanitarian groups could be created in community neighborhoods where they are needed. McConnell added Rev. Wilkinson agreed “that probably would be a good idea.”

“So I left him with that thought, and next thing I knew it, he’d been to visit L.S. Rugg Elementary School,” McConnell said, where Wilkinson talked with Principal Smith about possible classroom and landscape projects that First Church members could help with at the school “and as Donnie was walking the grounds, in his mind’s eye, he said, ‘I could just see a keyhole garden right there.’ ”

Rev. Wilkinson proposed the project to Principal Smith, who agreed, McConnell said, adding that Smith put McConnell in touch with Rugg PE Coach Homer Williams to coordinate the project. A spot was selected next to an earlier 4×6 garden Williams had built and a Good Food Project garden of the Food Bank of Central Louisiana.

The call then went out for First UMCA congregation members and others to start saving materials for compost in the keyhole garden, such as cardboard, phone books, newspapers, grass clippings, leaves and coffee grounds. McConnell talked to Good Food Project officials who he said also liked the keyhole garden idea and plan to send a representative on Sept. 6, which is when McConnell said that “we’re going to begin construction.”

McConnell said he was inspired by the 2007 book “Take This Bread” by Sara Miles as well as a visit to St. John’s UMC food pantry in Baton Rouge.  “I want to be able to have our church take care of those people who fall through the cracks, who don’t have a green card, who may not be a resident, who may be homeless, who may not have a place where they can cook a lot of food because they’re homeless but they can have some fresh fruit that they could eat,” he said.

McConnell said there are all kinds of ways where “we can show the love of Jesus through what we do, and when you feed somebody, it’s a powerful thing.”  “We hope that this garden is just the seed that will go to other people and say ‘I would like one at this school and I would like one at this organization; we would like one over here and we have an empty lot, can we put two of them over here?’ ” McConnell said.

“The Food Bank has already started building gardens out in the community and they like the idea, they want to partner with us, they’re going to help. They have the plans, the transplants, they have knowledge and they have connections out in the community,” he said.

“The (Rugg Elementary) teachers will be able to use it to do all kinds of projects — science and health, social studies and economics,” he added.  “Whether they can eat all the food, I don’t know — maybe they can sell it, maybe the Food Bank can bring over their truck, Nutrition on Wheels, and show them how to cook the food that they’ve harvested,” McConnell said. “It’s a seed — we’ll see where it goes … this will be the first keyhole garden I know of in central Louisiana. There’re all over the United States, all over the world.”

For more information, contact Wayne McConnell at (318) 729-3103 or Clara Woolf, FUMCA director of hospitality and service, at (318) 443-5696, ext. 106.