A neighbor recently approached Ken Washburn, who was holding fresh radishes in his hands, and asked if he’d share.
The 73-year-old, who volunteers in an area east of First Baptist Church in Davenprt, returned to the greenhouse and community garden, pulled up several fresh radishes and asked the neighbor if she’d like the greens. Hearing no, he trimmed the radishes and put about a dozen in a bag for the woman. She took the fresh produce to yet another neighbor, who enjoys radishes, she said.
“This is about how it works,” Washburn said. With advanced agronomy degrees from Purdue, Washburn moved to the Quad-Cities for a job as an agronomist at a fertilizer company.
He’s since retired, but three years ago, a pastor’s wife asked him to take over the church’s greenhouse project. The greenhouse came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Called the "Garden Master," the Purdue University graduate is known in the neighborhood for generosity with the produce, which extends into November.
The Rev. Rogers Kirk, of Third Missionary Baptist Church, helped to coordinate the original $7,000 grant for the greenhouse. The USDA was distributing grants in low-income, challenged neighborhoods around the nation, and the one in Davenport qualified.
A resident of Walcott, Ken has attended First Baptist since 1978. He is well acquainted with the neighborhood and its needs. "There is a need in the Hilltop area, there are lots of low-income families and they need sources of cheap, good food," he said.
Washburn calls the garden areas A, and B. The first has been in place for seven seasons, and produce is shared around the area, in a project from the People Uniting Neighbors and Churches, or the PUNCH organization. The greenhouse was erected starting last spring, and Washburn had produce from it by August, he said.
The greenhouse still needs lights, water and heat; right now, the condensation from the plastic roof rains on visitors. Washburn tracks the temperature indoors. On an early November day, it was 26 degrees Fahrenheit to start and 73 degrees by mid-morning.
It’s a bit drafty, Washburn said, but he’s in the process of fixing what he can.
While he has advanced knowledge of soil and fertilizer, running a greenhouse is different. He’s learned more by attending conferences, where he gets ideas. He visited a greenhouse in downtown Rock Island, and in Dubuque, where he attended a conference on the greenhouses by Iowa State University, Ames.
This greenhouse uses “High Tunnel” technology. Most greenhouses peak at 8-9 feet, but this one is 14 feet tall at its highest point.
A buffer at the top helps to control the temperature below, he said, and he uses curtains to help control the atmosphere inside the structure.
The most popular item grown this year was, by far, tomatoes, Washburn said. Neighbors wanted tomatoes of all kinds, in various stages. One popular type was green tomatoes.
Neighbors pick the produce directly, or ask what is available. It took Washburn weeks to offer red tomatoes, and he finally figured out, the green ones were favored by many in the area.
He still remembers one neighbor, who came in and got what Washburn described as two huge bags of fresh produce, including tomatoes and peppers. She was going fry green tomatoes for supper, and make a lot of salsa, he said. He picked 15 peppers for her.
This winter, Washburn plans to take some time off the project, and will start back up in March 2018. He’s still working on a heater, and the other needs for the greenhouse.
“I like to help feed the people,” he said. Next year, he does plan to add some flowers, so there will be color in the garden.