Published on May 23, 2004 2004- The Press Democrat


Standing among the rows of tomato vines, amid the chirping and croaking of crickets and frogs, a visitor to the Harvest for the Hungry community garden might believe he's stumbled upon a secret garden.

Hidden from sight from busy Yulupa Avenue, beyond the Christ Church United Methodist parking lot and screened by a thick hedgerow, the garden is unseen by those whizzing down the busy road.

``It's really an urban treasure -- an organic garden where food is grown for the hungry. And the best part is you don't have to know everything -- or really, anything -- to be helpful,'' said aptly named volunteer Amy Garden, who also serves as secretary to the nonprofit board.

At the Harvest for the Hungry garden, volunteers pitch in to grow lettuce, peas, onions, tomatoes, squash, beans, garlic, radishes, cabbage, cucumbers, peppers and other vegetables that wind up on dinner and lunch plates at The Living Room, Food for Thought, the AIDS Food Bank, FISH (Friends in Service Here) and other local soup kitchens.

``We're really lucky in this community. ... But so much food comes in cans. We can give gorgeous greens and ripe tomatoes that taste like tomatoes,'' said Martin Chilbulka, who balances his high-tech career with dirt-in-your-socks volunteering.

Founded in 1988 by Master Gardeners Marge Cerleti and Muchtar Salzman on three-quarters of an acre loaned by Christ Church United Methodist, the tiny urban farm has thrived, producing more than 7,000 pounds of produce last year.

As the menu of vegetables, fruits, spices, medicinal herbs and flowers has grown over the years, so too has the slate of community groups that benefit from lush, fresh food.

``To me, this garden offers the perfect microcosm of community. We grow. We learn. We teach. We harvest and give,'' said Master Gardener Joni Lateer of Santa Rosa, who has been volunteering regularly Wednesday mornings for about a year.

In addition to providing organically grown food to the hungry, the garden has served as a model of sustainable gardening for the community. It offers habitat gardens that benefit the ecosystem, a backyard demonstration garden to show how to create a low-water-usage oasis in a home yard and a medicinal herb garden.

Add to that the worm bin, the composting corner, the mini-fruit orchard and perhaps the smallest vineyard in Wine Country -- one row of edible grapes -- and it's clear why many volunteer hands are needed.

``There is a core group, really of about eight or 10 of us, who are here quite a bit. Volunteers come and go all year long, for so many reasons,'' said Chilbulka, who pointed out several long rows ready for planting if only they had more willing helpers.

``Volunteering here is completely flexible. We don't ask for commitments or regular hours. We just appreciate whatever people can do,'' he said.

One of the newest volunteers, SRJC student Ben Wurtsbaugh of Santa Rosa, spent a quiet morning this week cleaning bird baths and preparing planting beds.

``I'm just doing this for a love of gardening. I get to hang out and learn from master gardeners and maybe I'm working off a little karma, too,'' he said with a smile.

Food is harvested twice a week by volunteers who pick, wash, pack and often deliver to appreciative recipients. Tucked in with deliveries are fresh-cut flowers, also given freely.

For Katie Torgerson, who volunteers at the garden and at The Living Room, a daytime shelter for women and their children in Santa Rosa, the impact of the garden is powerful.

``The Living Room invited the gardeners to lunch recently and the women told us their stories. They thanked us, of course, but more importantly, many said they felt that receiving nourishing, organic food contributed to their recoveries,'' she said.

The Harvest for the Hungry is supported primarily through its annual plant sale. Regular free workshops are scheduled throughout the year.

On June 5, it's hosting ``Good Bugs'' and July 31, ``Creating Sacred Space in Your Garden.''

To learn more, or to dig in, volunteer gardeners can call 579-2584, or visit on a regular volunteer morning from 9 a.m. to noon Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

You can reach Staff Writer Rayne Wolfe at 521-5240 or