Volunteers prepare community garden for winter

Grace, a fundraiser for MPIRG, lives only a block away from the orchard and came to help plant Daffodil bulbs. Photo Credit: Emily Haavik Five gardeners armed with raincoats, shovels and 100 daffodil bulbs surveyed the Hillside Public Orchard last Sunday afternoon, Oct. 23, 2011.

Piles of bulbs were placed under every fruit tree. Cars sped by along Sixth Avenue East and 10th Street, right next to the orchard. Rain fell on the workers as they dug holes twice as deep as the length of the bulbs. Previous events held by the orchard have brought in 30 to 70 people, but only a faithful few showed up on this dreary day.

“Feels good to get my hands dirty,” said Grace (who only goes by one name), a fundraiser for Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) and one of the volunteers, holding up muddy hands.

The Hillside Public Orchard is a community garden created by volunteers. Since the first planting in June 2010, the orchard has been open to the public. Anyone can take free fruits and vegetables.

Kristin Stuchis, a Spanish teacher at Marshall School and the mastermind of the project, said it started out as a vision. She lives with her husband, Michael Gabler, across from the orchard and used to look often at the patch of unused land.

“I could see an orchard here,” Stuchis said.

Gabler, a science teacher at Marshall, said that every time people stopped to look at the garden Stuchis would run out and tell them about it, even during mealtimes.

“We’d pick up our fork and all of the sudden I’d be like, ‘Wait!’” Stuchis said.

“She’d be like, ‘Just this one time,’” Gabler said.

A sticky trap for pests designed to look like fruit hangs from a fruit tree in the Hillside Public Orchard. Photo Credit: Emily Haavik

The money to start the project came from donations. Stuchis went around asking neighbors to sponsor trees, and 10 trees were donated. She also received a Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) grant in April 2010, which paid for the orchard’s grape vines. Udac, a non-profit that provides services to people with disabilities, owns the land and contributes by mowing the grass.

“This is just passion,” Stuchis said. “None of us get paid for it.”

Stuchis said the core of their volunteers come from the Hillside area, but people from as far as Twig have come to help.

The orchard includes raised beds for the physically disabled and a monarch butterfly garden that provides a home for the at-risk species. The orchard is also home to strawberries, currant bushes, grape vines, peppers, tomatoes, beans, blueberries, wine cap mushrooms, rhubarb and asparagus, as well as cherry, plum, pear and apple trees.

“It’s so much food,” Grace said. “People have trouble understanding the concept of ‘free.’”

Stuchis wrote down the goals of the orchard before it started.

“One was to make healthy food more accessible to all, because it’s not,” Stuchis said. “Healthy food is really expensive.”

There was another purpose of the project.

“It was to build community and to beautify and provide more habitat for all of life,” Stuchis said.

Grace said she prayed for community when she moved from Minneapolis to Duluth.

“I live a block away and one time Kristin stopped me,” she said. “‘You look interesting, there’s free food up the hill.’”

Grace, who has been helping with the orchard for about six months, said she found what she was looking for through the Hillside Community Orchard.

“One of the main functions of the garden is to bring people together,” she said.

Hillside Public Orchard’s next event will be winterizing the garden on Sunday, Nov. 13 from 1 to 4 p.m.

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