UK extension garden connects people to nutritious food
BY KATIE PRATT, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food & Environment
Lee County residents are learning low-cost methods they can use to improve their health through gardening. Ted Johnson, a University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service agent in the county, installed several raised bed gardens at the extension office. He offers classes to residents throughout the growing season to show them how raised bed gardening is easy, economical and healthy.
“One of the biggest reasons we got into this is we have a big problem with health in Eastern Kentucky in that we have high rates of obesity and heart disease,” Johnson said. “People are not consuming fresh fruits and vegetables. They have don’t access to them, and sometimes, the amount of money they do have does not allow them to purchase them.”
Lee County ranks 109 out of 120 Kentucky counties in health outcomes in the latest County Health Rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Of the county’s 7,800 people, 34 percent of adults are obese.
According the U.S. Census Bureau, the annual median household income for Lee County is just over $22,000. Beattyville, the county seat, has two small grocery stores that have limited quantities of fresh produce.
Johnson, the agriculture and natural resources extension agent, holds workshops in the spring and the fall about how to plant, produce and harvest crops in raised beds. The garden has several varieties of common crops like lettuce and tomatoes. It’s an opportunity for him to show county residents what they can grow.
“We had 15 varieties of lettuce in all different colors,” Johnson said. “We can only get one variety in the store. I want to show people that while you can’t purchase these here, you can grow it from seed yourself for pennies.”
Lifelong Lee County resident Diana Hamilton said she’s enjoyed coming to the workshops. She has a large garden at home. While she doesn’t have raised beds, the gardening tips she’s learned from Johnson have helped her in her garden.
“I’ve learned how to stake tomatoes and prune them underneath to let the air circulate,” said Hamilton, a member of the county’s extension council. “Last year, I bought some of this netting because I was so impressed with it to stake my beans, but I never thought about staking my cucumbers. It’s just little gardening tips that I can use in our big garden.”
The raised beds are all about accessibility. Unlike traditional gardens, they do not require the use of tillers or tractors. The beds at the extension office are 30 inches tall including one that is wheel chair accessible so people of all physical abilities can garden.
It’s an option that appealed to Laken Campbell for her grandfather. Campbell is the county’s family and consumer sciences extension agent.
“He had actually quit gardening because it was so hard,” she said. “This would be a great thing for him to start doing, and it would be easy for him. Some people don’t realize how easy it is to do some of these things.”
Since Johnson began his raised bed program three years ago, about 150 people have attended at least one workshop, and residents have installed around 40 raised beds. In addition to the raised beds at the extension office, he also has them at the local schools and the county’s senior center. Johnson hopes to expand the program to include more crops and offer additional opportunities for more people, including a field day for the county’s students and their parents at the extension office this fall.In August, the extension office will also offer a food preservation workshop.
“I would love to have 500 raised beds in the county within five years,” Johnson said. “We have to do something to improve our health, and the only way we are going to do that is to help ourselves.”
The UK Cooperative Extension Service is part of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Jointly with its land-grant partner, Kentucky State University, Cooperative Extension takes the university to the people in their local communities, addressing issues of importance of all Kentuckians.