By Mace Thomson | Visitor Services – Gardens & Grounds

Americorps Member, September 2023 – August 2024

Every year as the temperature begins to rise, so does the excitement of gardeners who have been patiently waiting to get their hands dirty again. We know that feeling well at The Nature Place. However, before planting begins, there’s plenty of prep work to do. Before we begin to look into the garden itself, we plan what produce we want to grow, and from that we decide what to start early from seed.

Many plants need a head start indoors when it comes to gardening in a temperate climate like ours; plants like tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, cabbage, and more all need to be started indoors for various reasons; some take time to establish root growth, some can’t handle dips in cold temperatures and some just don’t have enough time to produce anything we can harvest within our short growing season.

The Nature Place demo garden showcases a variety of produce.

We are fortunate at The Nature Place to have great friends who start veggies for us or gift us seedlings, which allows us to focus on starting our native wildflowers indoors for our other gardens around the building. Plants that don’t need to be started early get hand-sewn into the ground or garden beds when the risk of frost has passed. But before we can plant any seeds, there is quite a bit of work to do.

The Nature Place AmeriCorps Members, Master Gardeners and volunteers take care of our native garden.
We offer garden volunteer hours every Thursday morning starting at 9am.

This year, Spring brought heavy rains which meant our gardens were full of grasses and weeds. We went to work pulling the large weeds we saw, but as every gardener knows, you’ll never get them all, especially with just a few people on the job. Thankfully, a UW-L recreational therapy class came and gave us a couple hours of their time. We had people tilling the in-ground garden beds to get rid of weeds and redefine edges, as well as prepare the soil for planting. We had others trimming dead ends off of our raspberry bushes, making them look fresh and healthy again, and many others digging out weeds. Many hands truly make light work and our in-ground garden beds were ready for planting. Our next task, and the biggest one yet to take on was fixing the raised garden bed boxes.

Some of our garden bed frames were in their final days, a couple were no longer attached at the corners, others were crumbling or chipping away in places, and the majority had ants getting more use out of them than we were. Thankfully, Emily, our Director of Administration, graciously brought in brand-new garden bed frames, so we were able to begin the transition from old to new. After getting rid of the old wood, the new frames fit perfectly as a replacement where the old frame had been. The most exciting part was having three new frames to place where we wanted and give us a fresh new place to plant. With a shovel in hand and a trailer bed waiting to be filled with weeds, I went to work. First measuring the size of the garden bed, then going back in to remove the sod, and finally going back to get the more resilient weeds left behind. Describing it in a few sentences makes it seem like less of a process than it really was, but it was a nice workload for two days or so.

Once we had that trailer full of grass and weeds, it was time to trade them out for some fresh compost. I worked alongside long-time board member and garden volunteer Buzz, who hitched up the trailer, and we rode to Isle La Plume. Isle La Plume is the brush and yard waste site for the city of La Crosse, free to use for La Crosse citizens. Not only can you drop stuff off, you can pick stuff up too. They offer free compost made from leaves and yard waste collected and processed over multiple years, as well as woodchips and gravel. After a few hours of work, the trailer had been unloaded of all the weeds and reloaded with fresh organic compost. It was exciting to bring it back to the garden, where we mixed in some llama manure from Kristy, our Administrative Manager’s farm, and then hauled wheel barrel after wheel barrel to fill up the new beds. Once full, we were able to get to the best part, planting!

The fresh produce bin available to the public for free on the outside of the demo garden

We are still in the planting stage, with many of our early planted veggies taking off, and others still being actively planted. It’s truly heartwarming to see how generous our friends and the community have been in contributing to the garden and helping to maintain it. This community spirit is one reason we are so excited to put produce in our free produce bin on the north side of the garden fence. Anyone walking by can take home produce from the free bin. Seeing our garden grow and knowing it benefits others is what makes all the hard work worthwhile.