Seeds of Goodwill

UWEC library volunteers are having a good thyme in the garden

Steph Mickelson

Roxanne Backowski at the mcintyre library community garden.
Roxanne Backowski at the McIntyre Library Community Garden.

On a small patch of land next to the Forest Street Community Gardens, you’ll find the McIntyre Library Community Garden. “I was looking for a community service project that fit my interests and hobbies, gardening is one,” said Roxanne Backowski, who started the garden last year. In April 2018, Backowski read a report from The Hope Lab that stated that at least 36% of university students nationwide face food insecurity, which is uncertainty over the availability of nutritious, safe food. That’s when she realized that she could use her gardening hobby to benefit students in need right on her very own campus, UW-Eau Claire.

With the support of Library Director Jill Markgraf and a small group of volunteers, Backowski got started. She used the Forest Street Community Garden as a model and decided to donate the produce to UWEC Campus Harvest Food Pantry. Campus Harvest serves more than 50 students in need of food a week. “Last year, we relied on donations of time, tools, seeds, and money from gardeners,” Backowski said. As a result of everyone’s hard work, they were able to donate 150 pounds of produce to Campus Harvest.

When The Eau Claire Foundation learned about Backowski’s efforts to provide fresh produce to UWEC students, it donated $1,000 to help with this year’s garden. According to Backowski, these funds “have already allowed us to expand the size and amount of plants planted in the garden, purchase soaker hoses for efficient watering, obtain straw for mulch, and labels to keep us organized.” They also use seeds from the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library’s Seed Library. 

Some further changes this year include incorporating a type of Native American planting method called the “Three Sisters” – growing corn, beans, and squash together. They’ve also added a gate for entering the garden, new laminated identification signs, and 3D printed “on/off” water signs.

Not only does the garden provide food, it also provides an opportunity for the volunteers, many of whom are new to gardening, to get outside and get their hands dirty. On Mondays, the volunteers gather for a group gardening night where they can work side-by-side. They “get to spend time outside in the summer by the Chippewa River, sometimes with a beautiful sunset as a backdrop, all contributing to a community service project,” Backowski said.

These nights also give them ample opportunity to throw around garden-related puns and partake in weeding, or what Backowski’s coworker and fellow gardener Jenna Vande Zande refers to as “productive destruction.” Backowski, who has been around gardening since childhood, said she especially enjoys seeing the volunteers “express awe and excitement about digging up potatoes,” something she did with her dad as a child.

They’ve secured the perimeter with rabbit fence and planted marigolds and herbs in an effort to keep out hungry critters. The soaker hoses are in position and allow for easy watering. Straw is used as mulch to temper the weeds and help the soil retain moisture. With all of the improvements and added volunteers, not to mention the excitement for the project, this year’s harvest promises to help even more UWEC students in need of fresh food.