Just in time for spring, the grounds of The Free Clinic of Culpeper are getting a fresh look and a new purpose.
As workers removed overgrown shrubs last fall in front of the clinic beside Culpeper Medical Center, the facility’s staff and volunteers decided that any new landscaping should be functional and build on the Free Clinic’s mission of serving the region’s public.
So four large raised beds, wooden garden boxes, will replace the shrubbery, giving Free Clinic patients the chance to engage in a gardening project that will provide fresh vegetables for them and neighborhood residents.
People can easily replicate the idea at home, Clinic Director Tammy LaGraffe said.
The Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont, a group of farmers and gardeners who tend demonstration beds at The Carver Center in Rapidan, worked closely with the Free Clinic to plan the project.
On Friday outside the clinic, MVFP members presented a workshop on constructing garden boxes, to which the public was invited.
Roland Terrell, a retired Orange County schools teacher, said he will create a webinar from video footage of Friday’s workshop so more people can learn about the project and the advantages offered by growing in raised beds.
Terrell, who is a regional program assistant with Virginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach Program, told workshop attendees how SFOP helps farmers find greater success.
The program, which is part of Virginia Cooperative Extension, educates small and veteran farmers and ranchers how they can better sustain their operations, providing training programs that improve farm management skills and people’s quality of life.
Joyce Baez, one of the Free Clinic’s nurses, happily took part in the workshop, plunging in to build a garden box.
“I came so I would know what is here for the patients,” Baez said, “plus, I’m into gardening and like to learn.”
The workshop was offered in partnership with Virginia Cooperative Extension and Whole Heart Farms, a Culpeper County business that creates garden-box kits. Whole Heart’s husband-and-wife team runs a small family lumber mill in Mitchells.
Whole Hearts’ products are made in Culpeper, said Craig Burris, who owns the business off State Route 522 with his wife, Michelle. He handles the lumber part, and she designs and makes the kits.
Their garden boxes are made of Eastern red cedar, which smells wonderful, is aesthetically pleasing and lasts a long while in the weather and embedded in soil, as well as native black locust. Lumber made from other species deteriorates after two to three years and must be replaced, Craig Burris said.
Whole Heart Farms was generous in supporting the project, said LaGraffe, who herself is a registered nurse.
MVFP donated one of the four garden boxes, and will help with ongoing education efforts and management of the gardens. The nonprofit group has also provided fresh vegetables to the clinic’s patients in the past, LaGraffe said.
A private citizen will donate composted soil to fill the new beds, she said, and Cedar Mountain Stone will provide gravel to place around the garden boxes.
Volunteers will plant the beds starting in March and tend them through the end of the growing season, probably concluding in October or November.
LaGraffe said the gardens will help the clinic continue its collaborative relationships with other programs in the community as well as to build new ones.
“Some of those new connections include the Options youth program,” she said. “Some of their participants will help tend to the gardens.”
Culpeper County’s at-risk students can learn from the process of building and maintaining the garden beds—planning, assembling, growing plants and weeding, Options Director Dave Kemp said.
“We will be bringing our youth over here to take care of the gardens that are planted,” Kemp said. “From beginning to end, there are lots of good opportunities to get kids busy and get them some hands-on learning, making a difference for the community.”
Kemp, who took part in Friday’s workshop, said his program also plans to build garden beds in front of its farmhouse offices next to Culpeper County’s Pearl Sample Elementary School.
LaGraffe said the clinic’s staff encourages other groups and individuals who need community-service hours to reach out to the Free Clinic for more information about how they can become involved.
Brenda Watkevich of Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program was delighted by the workshop and future plans.
Back in 2008, Watkevich had the idea of planting garden beds outside the Free Clinic. She grew tomatoes there and encouraged people to pick the ripe fruits when they visited the clinic.
“Now, the idea is finally catching on with actual gardening beds,” she said. “I’m so excited this is happening. We’ll really make good use of them.”
At the Free Clinic, Cooperative Extension already helps by donating fresh vegetables and educating patients on the health benefits of eating fresh vegetables. Extension staff members are planning future public education programs, including cooking classes, at the clinic, LaGraffe said.
Extension staff members have also tended three smaller beds near the sidewalk in front of the clinic and will continue to assist in maintaining them, she said.