OLEAN, NY — Wednesday morning, all was quiet at the South Olean Community Garden as Kaele Saal watered her two garden beds.

Saturday, Saal expects to be part of a crowd at the community garden, 402. W. Green St., when volunteers and garden plot owners get together from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the annual workday. After that, tomatoes, squash, lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli and corn should once again color the garden.

A joint venture of the Citizens Action Network of Southwestern New York and the Rural Revitalization Corporation, the community garden sits at the corner of South Third Street, behind and next to the former Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a building now owned by Epic Church. 

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The community garden offers better food options for local residents, explained Chris Stanley, a Citizens Action Network member who applied for funding from Rural Revitalization to start the project two years ago.

On the last day of June in 2018, the temperature hit 85 degrees while 50 volunteers built 19 4-by-12-foot garden beds. In 2019, the number of garden beds was increased to 25 beds because community members requested the space.

“We had 14 people take beds the first year, and we had put 19 in. Then we had all 25 of them rented last year and a waiting list,” Stanley, a professor of theology and Franciscan studies at St. Bonaventure University, recalled.

During the upcoming workday, participants will revitalize and rebuild the existing garden beds, Stanley said. And the group will add another six 4-by-12-foot plots as well as six smaller, elevated plots that elderly and disabled people can utilize with ease.

“We’re putting in new garden beds and preparing the existing ones for the upcoming year and various other additions to the garden areas,” Stanley said. “Anyone who has skill or muscle can come for the whole time or just an hour or two.”

According to April Ramadhan, the Rural Revitalization executive director, “We have also had ongoing discussions for over two years about creating plots that are elevated to waist-height for the elderly, disabled, or pregnant members of the community. … We are very happy that these additions will open the garden up to more members of the community.”

Plot rentals are $20 and “come with” rich, organic topsoil, seeds, plants and a limited amount of tools to work with. Stanley urges people to bring extra shovels, hoes, rakes, trowels and garden carts or wheelbarrows. Though not mandatory to participate, volunteers may reserve a spot on Facebook or contact Stanley at cstanley@sbu.edu or 716-372-4232. Free lunch and water will be provided. Plot rentals are still available, and interested parties should contact Saal at Kaelesaal@gmail.com.

Because of COVID-19, volunteers must wear masks and gloves to participate and follow social distancing protocols on Saturday, Stanley added.

Ramadhan said, “The event took a bit more coordination this year, because of COVID-19. It was important to all of us that we provide a safe environment for gardening activities, and we have a new garden safety plan in place. It required some extra time and patience to plan everything via email and Zoom meetings, but everyone came together and made it happen.”

While Saturday is the workday, planning and work on the garden are ongoing, according to Ramadhan.

“The South Olean garden is not just a summer project,” she said. “The community volunteers, Epic Church and RRC work year round to make sure the garden is ready for summer planting. Epic Church has been very generous with allowing us to use the land and water on site, and their support has been tremendous.”

Ramadhan recalled that South Olean was not the name originally considered for the community garden.

“When this first began, and we were tossing around names for the garden, there were labels such as "Green Street Garden,” she said. “However, we realized the garden reached community members from much further than Green Street, and South Olean Garden seems more fitting. It's been great to share gardening tips, meet new people, and establish relationships with neighbors because of the South Olean garden.”

The success of South Olean Community Garden has led to a soon-to-be-launched community garden on Reed Street.

Ramadhan described the venture as “a joint collaboration with Healthy Families Allegany/Cattaraugus, and we have taken a different approach with this garden. Families are learning to garden together with their children. We have activities that will happen over the summer, and we are seeing that it is a great way for families to learn to garden in a less intimidating way. We want to make sure that families have support, education, and a team to help as they learn to grow their own food."

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