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Grow This: WV Garden Challenge encourages residents to get their hands dirty

Over the last few years, I’ve seen information on social media about the Grow This: WV Garden Challenge — a statewide free seed distribution program run by the WVU Extension Office.

I never signed up for free seeds, but thought it sounded like a great way to encourage more people to try growing their own food.

This year, I’ve been trying to limit time on Facebook, so didn’t know about updates to the program until a friend told me that West Virginia counties are holding meetings about the program.

A meeting about gardening sounds like an ideal way to spend an evening, so last week I went to the Kingwood Extension Office at the allotted time.

Not knowing what to expect, I was delighted to see over a dozen people from across the county in attendance.

Although the sign up for free seeds has closed, participation in the project never closes. This year’s varieties are Jimmy Nardello peppers, red Russian kale and scarlet nantes carrots. At the meeting, a few members said they might have extras to share.

The meeting was run by Kozue Maye, the WVU Extension health educator for Preston County. She told us that this year they’ve leveled the program up a bit, turning it into a competition between counties for grant funds. The money is intended to go into bettering communities.

Several communities represented at the meeting had the common goal of building community gardens.

Another goal discussed at the meeting is for people to donate to local food pantries the excess of healthy food they have grown for themselves. Both these goals fight food insecurity and can help address public health (West Virginia does not rate well nationally in either category).

I enjoyed this meeting so much and am enthusiastic about the entire idea of this program. Not that big into challenges in general, I’m excited to participate this year because I support the goal of at least some local self-sufficiency: providing fresh locally grown produce to our communities. I also like the idea of connecting with other gardeners through growing a few of the same crops — it creates an unexpected sense of community sharing and collaboration.

In the course of the meeting I realized that the majority (if not all) of the attending gardeners shared not only a love of growing things (to be expected) but also methods of growing. This surprised me, since there are so many gardening methods and theories on how to do it best.

Members chatted about no-till gardening, which appeared to be a crowd favorite, as well as aquaculture, and methods of naturally fertilizing plants. During this discussion, we found that many of us watch the same gardening videos online.

The idea of a plant sale fundraiser came up, and of offering tool libraries for the future community gardens.

The next meeting is at 6 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Kingwood Extension office and is open to anyone.

I’m looking forward to the next meeting, to hear more from other local gardeners about their experiences, methods, and what has worked for them.

The state is offering weekly online meetings as well, with expert presenters. Last week’s presentation was about setting reasonable gardening goals. I couldn’t attend the live meeting, and have hesitated to listen to the recording. I like holding onto my unrealistic hopes and dreams for my garden.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist using experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email