January 18, 2022

A growing education: Garden beds built for summer campers

By Joe McIntyre / staff photographer

Master gardeners, from left, Dianne Higgins, Jim Kruser, his wife Dana Kruser and Viola Storie install planting beds Saturday on the grounds of Camp Owahta in Solon.

SOLON — The conversation that inspired Cortland County’s master gardeners to spend Saturday morning building garden beds at Camp Owahta took place last year, and it went something like this:

Camp Owahta Director Nathan Fanton: “Where does butter come from?”

Young camper: “Corn.”

The answer stuck with Fanton. “We need to do something about this.” He approached Claudia Hitt, horticulture program educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County, which runs the 4-H camp.

She’d been wanting to do something for years. “Let’s do a farm, a garden plot,” she told him.

“I’ve wanted to do this right from the get-go,” Hitt said Saturday as gardeners hauled hardwood frames from a workspace to the garden plot.

Much of the material was donated, Fanton said. The wood in particular came from Gutchess Lumber and volunteers spent a good chunk of the weekend before Saturday grading the plot and laying down gravel and filling some of the beds.

The raised beds will be a new program at the residential camp, Fanton said. “They’ll be able to grow their own food and eat it,” he said. And if they have excess produce, they’ll sell it at a weekly farmers market.

Even in an agriculture-oriented community like Cortland County, understanding how food goes from garden plot to plate is declining. “The exposure to farm just isn’t as prevalent,” Fanton said. And many of his campers will come from more urban areas near Syracuse or Binghamton.

The master gardeners — who each completed at least 45 hours of Cornell-approved training to gain their certification and contribute 45 hours a year of community service — will follow up the construction by planting the first round of crops, Hitt said. Peas, lettuce and beans to start, with some spaces left empty so campers can plant their own even as they harvest the early veggies.

“We’re aiming at crops the campers can harvest and eat,” she said.

Dana Kruser of Marathon was anxious, too. She delayed building her own garden beds so she could help build the Owahta beds. “We just bought a house in Marathon,” Kruser said, calling to her husband, Jim, then her two dogs. She and Hitt trade notes on compost — Kruser has lots of horse manure — before Jim interrupts to saw off a bit of excess wood on a frame.
They discuss what’s going in their garden — Hitt does a lot of herbs, and Kruser was just anxious to get them planted.

Kruser looked around as a crew hauled another frame to the plot.

“I don’t see a compost pile,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be the next thing we build.”