Guest House of Milwaukee Shares Their Community Garden

It has been an honor to be a part of the Fiskars Project Orange Thumb this past year. One of the highlights of be a member of the Fiskars Project Orange Thumb Editorial Board for 2015 is interviewing the people who are putting the gardens together using these grants.

One of the community gardens that was chosen to receive the grant this year was Guest House of Milwaukee.  I had the honor of communicating with Rev. Erik J. Koepnick who is the Manager of Volunteer Services.  In the interview below the Erik shares with me the history of the site where the garden is located and some inspiring things they are growing in their community.

Interview with Rev. Erik J. Koepnick of Guest House of Milwaukee

Bren : Tell me about the community your garden is located in?

The Cream City Gardens are right across the street from the Guest House of Milwaukee, which provides shelter, housing, education, and services to Milwaukee’s homeless who seek to transform their lives with dignity and purpose. The Guest House is located in the King Park neighborhood of Milwaukee, a neighborhood founded by German immigrants, and which thrived until the boom of American suburbs in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Once packed with homes, the neighborhood is now blighted with empty lots and those homes that remain are largely abandoned. We do have a small cluster of owner occupied homes just around the Guest House and the Cream City Gardens.

Our neighborhood is frequented by individuals and families seeking resources at the Marcia Coggs Human Services Building, where Milwaukee’s social services programs are concentrated. Despite being steps from downtown and from the Marquette University campus, our neighborhood is largely ignored by revitalization efforts.

Bren :Why a garden in your area?

Our neighborhood is also in a food desert, with only 2 or 3 grocery stores within 2 miles. The Cream City Gardens partners with Friedens Community Ministries to provide fresh produce to their pantry at the Coggs Center which is just down the block.

Bren: Who is involved in this garden? 

The Cream City Gardens is a program of the Guest House of Milwaukee in partnership with Friedens Community Ministries. Our garden is run primarily by volunteers, and is overseen by a committee that includes community volunteers, master gardeners, and staff from both the Guest House and Friedens Community Ministries.

Our garden also hosts the Urban Agriculture Training Program for homeless and formerly homeless individuals otherwise engaged in shelter or permanent housing programs with the Guest House, in which volunteers with first-hand experience in urban agriculture, plant biology, and the green industry, provide training in a variety of areas to prepare participants for re-entry into the workforce.

Basil in the community garden

Bren: What are you excited to grow this season? 

We grow a wide variety of vegetables and some flowers, but we are most excited about our tomatoes and our melon patch. Our friends, neighbors, and even community members just passing through the area are always excited for green tomatoes for their favorite family fried green tomatoes recipe. So we tend to do an early harvest of green tomatoes. Many of our ripe tomatoes will be eaten by our guests in shelter in salads, and the final harvest will go to our Fall Harvest Festival meal in September.

Our melon patch is a new addition in 2015 thanks to the Fiskars Grant. We have planted a variety of melons that will overtake a large area of our garden and create a beautiful patch of fruit. This will add variety to our harvest, but also intrigue volunteers and visitors to our garden.

Bren: What have you been harvesting? 

We have been busy harvesting an abundance of sugar snap peas which have been a hit with volunteers and shelter guests. Our harvest has also included arugula, beautiful heads of broccoli, chives, green tomatoes, hot peppers, sweet bell peppers, kale, strawberries, rhubarb, zucchini, yellow squash, and beets.

potatoes in garden
Look at all those potatoes in that raised bed… what a great way to plant them using raised beds.

Bren: What do you look forward to as we head into Autumn in the garden? 

We always look forward to our Fall Harvest Festival where the Guest House and Friedens Community Ministries celebrate the harvest and recognize the graduates of our Urban Agriculture Training Program. A meal is created from our final harvest by Chef Muench at Maxie’s Restaurant with a fish main course donated by Empire Fish Company. The meal is free to the public and is finished with smores made at fire pits in the garden, and with scoops of locally-made Purple Door Ice Cream.

Bren: How has this garden added to your community? 

A place for the community to gather and grow!

Our garden has given new life to a corner of our neighborhood that was once occupied by dilapidated houses, overgrown weeds, and abandoned tires. Our garden has given us a space to teach valuable job skills to formerly homeless folks. Our garden has created many opportunities for volunteers to come together with our shelter guests to garden, create art, host picnics, and play yard games. Our garden has created a space where our staff, volunteers, and shelter guests can sit to rest and enjoy the beauty of the garden. Our garden has created a source of fresh produce for our shelter meals and for the people accessing the food pantry down the street. Our garden’s award-winning Rainwater Harvesting Pavilion gives the garden a space where we can teach classes, host picnics and other events, while collecting and conserving rainwater for use in the garden.

FiskarsPOT_LogoThe Fiskars Grant has helped us in many ways. We were able to purchase cages for our tomatoes so we’re losing fewer tomatoes than last year when they were rotting from sitting on the ground. We have been able to purchase power equipment to make gardening our acre of land much easier, including a gas powered tiller and a gas-powered trimmer. We have been able to afford many more seeds this year due to the gift of the grant, and our volunteers have been much happier with the high-quality, brand new tools that came with the grant. To get down to it, the Fiskars Grant has given us the ability to maintain the garden independently of our shelter operating budget. Usually we have to make an investment from our operating budget which draws funds away from our shelter, but this year we haven’t had to do that. Thank you for helping us better serve our shelter guests and our garden program.

The Guest House of Milwaukee, established in 1982 by Milwaukee’s Central City Churches, provides shelter, housing, education and services to Milwaukee citizens who are homeless. The Guest House supports The Cream City Gardens, providing job training, education and a sense of community to clients, visitors and volunteers. The garden provides fresh, home-grown produce to the shelter, permanent housing clients, neighbors and the nearby Friedens Community Ministries food pantry. Located in central Milwaukee, the one-acre garden yields over 3,500 pounds of fresh produce each year, employing innovative processes like their Rainwater Harvesting Pavilion to catch and store rainwater for the gardens. Volunteer and shelter clients collaborate to manage the garden. With the help of a Fiskars Project Orange Thumb grant, The Guest House of Milwaukee will increase the amount of produce grown. The Guest House will also introduce a produce truck to visit the city’s food deserts, employing some formerly homeless individuals as drivers and clerks.


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