CONYERS -- Despite an invasion by deer and a late planting, the Rockdale County Master Gardeners first Plant-A-Row garden is yielding plenty of food for families in need.
The group planted a 5,000-foot square garden this season as part of the Plant-A-Row for the Hungry program. Through Plant-A-Row, gardening groups nationwide grow herbs and vegetables and donate the produce to food banks, soup kitchens and service organizations.
To date, the Rockdale County Master Gardeners have provided the Rockdale County Food Bank with 290 pounds of fresh vegetables. The food bank is an arm of Rockdale Emergency Relief, a nonprofit that helps families in financial need.
RER Director Ashley Roesler said the fresh produce is a welcome supplement to the non-perishables distributed by the food bank.
"There's something special about feeding someone with something you've grown," she said. "It's something that's done with their hearts and hands and there's something extremely personal about that."
Roesler said the food bank needs donations now more than ever. RER has experienced a sustained 300 percent increase in clients over the last two years, aiding 9,609 people in fiscal year 2009-10.
The fresh vegetables, including tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers, okra, peppers and pumpkins, are dropped off at RER twice a week. Roesler said a lack of refrigeration space has not been a problem because there is a steady stream of clients daily who take the food.
"We love it," said Roesler of the Master Gardeners' efforts. "It's a great partnership, so we're really excited about it."
Rockdale County Master Gardener Bobbie Hicks, working in conjunction with the Rockdale County Extension Office, spearheaded the Plant-A-Row program. The groups worked on procuring donated land for the garden, bought some seeds and began planting as soon as they got permission from the landowners in late May.
"It was such a thrill to see everything popping out of the ground one week later," Hicks said.
The project was not without its challenges for the roughly one dozen master gardeners who volunteered their time. The gardeners tilled and added supplements to the soil. They pulled weeds. They battled hungry deer who trampled the cantaloupes and melons and ate the foliage off the sweet potatoes.
Even harvesting three times a week takes its toll.
"It's hot, hot work and we come in absolutely soaked even though we get there at 7 in the morning and leave at 9 or 10 when we get done with the weeding," Hicks said.
Master Gardeners undergo extensive training in horticulture from the Extension Office and must volunteer 50 hours in the community their first year, and 25 hours annually in consecutive years.
Hicks said she has given her time this year, and then some.
"I have over 100 in hours in that garden," Hicks said.
A retired Rockdale County educator who became a Master Gardener in 1999, Hicks is pleased with group's initial attempt at Plant-A-Row. She hopes to aid more organizations, such as the Meals on Wheels program, in the future.
"There's a great satisfaction in seeing the plants come up from little bitty dry seeds and finally producing something that can be utilized," Hicks said.