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Agriculture

Growing Forward: New Community Garden Blossoms in Altoona

garden meant to bring locals closer, offers giant pumpkin-growing opportunities

Rebecca Mennecke |

GROWING FORWARD. This lonely leafy green is just the start of a robust new community garden in Altoona, which began this May
GROWING FORWARD. This lonely leafy green is just the start of a robust new community garden in Altoona, which began in May. (Photo by Rebecca Mennecke)

“Growing up, my mom always had beautiful flower gardens,” recalled City Administrator Mike Golat. “We also had a vegetable garden, but we had super poor soil out at our cabins, so it was always a joke at the end of the year that the carrots were” – he pinched his fingers together – “this big. But we tried.” 

Soon after, Golat became passionate about gardening – specifically growing dahlias. And his gardening took a competitive edge when he bet his superintendent at work – a farmer – that he could grow a larger pumpkin. 

The first year, the superintendent won.

“I had a rock pile,” Golat bemoaned, then said, “The next year, I had a hundred yards of dirt brought in. I mean, I built a fence. I put in an irrigation system. And the funny story is, I knew this farmer that had a pickup truck, and I heard that over by Olympia there’s this chicken farm that had chicken manure. ... And I got down there, and I said, ‘Load me up.’ And it was pure green manure. It wasn’t dried at all. It made my eyes water. So, I brought it home, and I (went) to dump it, and it’s so thick that it won’t even slide out. So I have to get up there and shovel it out. And it is so putrid that you can’t even walk out of my front door. It was so horrible.”

But, if you wondered, the entire scenario made Golat an excellent pumpkin grower. He has competed – and won various categories – in Altoona’s annual giant pumpkin contest.

A community garden, in of itself, is a pretty small thing, but it’s an accumulation of many things like this that makes a community like this such a great place to live.

SCOTT KWICK

PUBLIC WORKS SUPERINTENDENT

Gardening is a passion that many Altoona city officials have in common, which is one of many reasons they decided to officially launch Altoona’s first community garden this May. All available community plots were quickly claimed in the garden, which is on the northwest corner of Hayden Avenue and First Street East, behind City Hall.

“A community garden, in of itself, is a pretty small thing,” said Scott Kwick, public works superintendent for the City of Altoona, “but it’s an accumulation of many things like this that make a community like this such a great place to live.”

There are eight total plots – with one staff plot for city officials, five for the public to use, and two for growing giant pumpkins.

What’s the deal with giant pumpkins, you may ask? Each year, River Prairie hosts a Ginormous Pumpkin Festival, which has the third highest pumpkin poundage weighed in the U.S., with a 2,000-pound pumpkin weighed in last year.

Shannon Engel of Engel's Giant Pumpkin Patch
Shannon Engel of Engel's Great Pumpkins and Carving works with Chippewa Vallians to encourage others to grow ginormous pumpkins. (Photo by Andrea Paulseth.)

Is the fest still on for this year? “Oh yeah,” Golat said. “We’re going for the prettiest pumpkin.” The fest is slated for Sept. 25-26 in River Prairie, and the new community garden space offers the opportunity for locals to get involved more with growing their own pumpkins to enter into competition.

Each 25x25 plot costs $20 per year, and folks in the community can renew their plot each year automatically to encourage growers to invest in amending the soil. Already, all five community plots have been snagged for this year.

“Altoona has very much been about investing in quality-of-life amenities in the past several years,” Golat said. “It’s all about making Altoona a fun place to live. This is just another piece of that.”

The rules about using the community garden are pretty simple:  just be a good neighbor. Keep your plot weeded and tidy, and be cognizant of neighboring plots when spraying insecticides and pesticides.

“It’s all about getting to know each other and supporting each other,” Golat said. “It’s a way to get to know some of your neighbors.”

The new community garden in Altoona, located right behind Altoona City Hall.
The new community garden in Altoona is right behind Altoona City Hall. (Photo by Rebecca Mennecke)

And, it’s a way for city officials to get to know each other better, too.

“Doing this, you realize how many of your coworkers are into gardening,” Kwick said. And, Golat said, they plan to make salsa for the fall.

The community garden also provides opportunities to donate to local food pantries and food insecurity programs in Altoona, as well as providing educational resources through the public library and local school systems.

“I’ve always been very interested in community gardens and their impacts on communities,” said Management Analyst Roy Atkinson. “It’s amazing.”


Check out more information about the new community garden here