Gardening gives more than dirty hands
Rich Congdon had a vision six years ago.
“I wanted to provide an experience for people who want to live a healthier life,” said Congdon, an 80-year-old retired publisher and 56-year member of the Cedar Falls, Iowa Lions Club. “Knowing our club needed a diabetes project and knowing my own diabetes situation, this fit the bill.”
“This” is Prairie Parkway Garden (PPG), a hands-on learning center for those with diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and anyone else who wants to explore the benefits of healthy living and eating.
“There will be something like 700 million people with diabetes in 10 years,” noted Congdon, a Master Gardener and manager of the 1.3-acre garden, who noted that working to reduce the prevalence of diabetes and improve the lives of diabetics is a primary initiative for Lions International. “We have to convince the population to change their lifestyle. Through this garden, we show how easy it is to grow your own foods, how much better they taste, and how much fun you can have getting outside and working with others.”
Jenny Bruss, program and outreach coordinator at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) who manages a campus garden there, serves as PPG assistant project manager and is also a Master Gardener.
“I’m passionate about showing people how easy it is to make great food from simple ingredients. I love to reconnect people to their food as we have lost that over the past couple of decades. At this garden, we help participants learn about foods to empower them to live a healthier lifestyle,” Bruss says.
The cooking component completed the puzzle for some major funding sought for the garden, as Congdon notes, “Some foundations told us, ‘You teach how to grow it, and you teach how to harvest it, but you haven’t taught people how to cook it.’”
Digging beyond the soil
Therefore, in the summer of 2022, PPG launched three modes of classes which are held in the garden and in classroom space inside the UnityPoint Medical Clinic:
- Unity Shorts
Gardening, exercise, and fun. Weekly sessions exploring a different produce item from growing it, to harvest, to cooking with it.
- Soil to Supper
This hands-on class starts in the garden and then brings the harvest into the kitchen where participants help create fresh and healthy dishes.
- Dementia Engagement
Gardening can be a healthy way for dementia patients and caregivers to experience the outdoors and social time with others.
“Our very first Unity Shorts class was all about radishes,” Bruss notes. “The participants were adamant they didn’t like radishes, although they admitted they had not actually ever eaten one. After trying a few recipes, they became radish converts — and this is true of pretty much everything we do. People are finding they actually enjoy radishes, eggplant, beets, swiss chard and other produce they’re not familiar with.”
A farm stand, where?
Prairie Parkway Garden utilizes land donated by UnityPoint Health located just east of its new medical clinic. UnityPoint employees often comment how much they enjoy watching Lions Club members and community volunteers work in the garden, and a Farm Stand is located on the main floor just inside the clinic where patients and staff can help themselves to fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden.
Congdon, Bruss, and other Lions and community members have donated over 10,000 volunteer hours to date at the site. In May, UNI construction students built a garden shed that houses tools and a lawn tractor. Other volunteers built a greenhouse and planted a large variety of vegetables, strawberries, radishes, and blueberries—including more than 15 types of tomatoes and six different types of radishes.
“We want to show different ways of growing things,” said Congdon.
The vision Congdon and Bruss have for the garden has drawn people in with new ideas. In 2021, Dr. Dan Glascock of UnityPoint Health wandered out to the garden and asked, “Would you be open to putting in fruit trees?” Growing up, he and his brothers and sisters enjoyed picking apples from their Cedar Falls backyard and making cider every fall.
Dr. Glascock provided funding for 54 different fruit trees which Lions Club members planted last April, honoring his father by naming the orchard after him at a dedication on Oct. 11, 2022.
PPG has also assumed management of a pollinator garden east of the main garden, providing an outlet for a local beekeeper to place hives containing 400 non-stinging Mason bees.
The idea for the Dementia Engagement class, meanwhile, came about primarily because Congdon is himself a dementia caregiver. A UNI faculty member visited with him about the need for dementia patients to find places to get away from the confines of small rooms or areas while offering a place for caregivers to get together. Hence, a class took root once a month whereby patients and caregivers do small exercises or simply walk through the Prairie Parkway Garden.
One of the more rewarding activities occurred mid-summer when teams of two class members combined to put together colorful strings that form a beautiful mosaic marking a row to one of the many tomato beds.
“They said, ‘We just wanted to say thank you,’” Congdon noted.
For more information:
Rich Congdon explains the diabetes garden
About the Author
When not writing, Justin Tolan of Cedar Falls, Iowa tends to a small trading card business and plays golf.
Prairie Parkway Garden Recipes
From Jenny Bruss and Rich Congdon
Swiss Chard Pancakes (Jenny Bruss)
Yes, this is an odd take on pancakes but a favorite the family will enjoy. Serve with a healthy salad and/or grilled chicken breast. For simplicity and ease, use your favorite basic pancake recipe or box mix — one that doesn't have sweetened additive flavors like maple syrup or blueberries, e.g.
This will make 10-to-12 4-inch pancakes. If your recipe calls for oil to be added, add olive oil instead.
Add the following to your batter mix and gently fold in:
- 2 C finely chopped swiss chard from the stem to the leaves (or substitute fresh chopped spinach leaves or shredded zucchini that has the water squeezed out)
- 2 Tbl fresh chopped chives and/or wild garlic greens or 1/2 tsp powdered garlic powder
- 2 Tbl of fresh chopped basil or 1 tsp dried basil or 1 tsp dried oregano or 1 tsp Italian herb mix
- 1/4 C grated parmesan cheese + more for table service (yes, the green can works fine here)
Gently fold together and let sit while the pan heats. If the batter is too thick, it's harder for the veggies to cook. You can add a little water if needed or after you make the first couple pancakes after you see how they cook up. Using olive oil to cook your pancakes, spoon out batter into 4" circles and cook on a med-high heat so that there is a nice crispy edge and bubbles are forming on the tops of the pancakes before you flip them to finish cooking through. Once pancakes are done, you can sprinkle with more parmesan as you stack them on the plate. You can flavor these up in whatever flavor palate you like and you can add other things like pitted & chopped kalamata olives, capers, oregano, rosemary, etc. These are a nice versatile savory pancake and a great way to add vegetables in your diet.
Radish & Cucumber Salad (Jenny Bruss)
- 10-12 globe or breakfast radish. Slice thin or run over a mandoline slicer to equal about 2 C sliced radishes give or take, place in a bowl.
- 1 med English or whatever cucumber you have. Slice thin or run over mandoline slicer to equal about 1 C and add to the bowl.
Mix the dressing in a small bowl and pour over vegetables.
- 1 Tbl sesame oil
- 2 Tbl rice vinegar
- 1 Tbl soy sauce
- 1 Tbl Mirin
- 1/2 tsp powdered ginger -optional
- 1 Tbl canola or veg oil
- 2 Tbl chopped cilantro or Thai basil as garnish
Mix together and refrigerate if not served right away. Can add a splash of color by adding 3 Tbl of shredded carrots or shredded purple cabbage. Can add a splash of heat by adding 1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes. Can add some crunch by adding 3 Tbl sunflower seeds or pepitas.
Cedar Falls Lions Garden Chili (Rich Congdon)
- 10 oz. sirloin finely diced, floured, and browned in butter
- 1 pound ground beef, browned
- ½ pound ground pork, browned
- 1 pound Colby jack cheese
- Add ¼ C. apple juice to deglaze
Pour into crock pot and add meat.
Chop large onion, green and red pepper, and poblamo pepper; sauté and add diced celery — salt and pepper to taste. Add 30 oz. diced tomatoes and a 48 oz. can of Dei Fratelli Tasty Tom tomato juice. Cook at least four hours or until it bubbles, and then turn down to medium heat. Cook 4 hours in the crock pot/slow cooker.