Dave Phillips, coordinator of the Garden Ministry, picks tomatoes off the vine in the garden on land owned by Grace Evangelical Free Church in Davenport.

One spring morning in 2002, Dave Phillips startled the worshippers at Asbury United Methodist Church in Bettendorf. He marched to the pulpit in bib overalls with a straw hat cocked on his head, a red handkerchief around his neck and carrying a garden hoe. He boldly spoke: “We have all kind of missions, but what we need is a food garden mission.”

He said that many people donate canned goods and packaged edibles to the hungry, but fresh food tastes better. He told how he could get plants and seeds donated. All he needed was help from people not afraid to get their hands dirty to dig and weed and pick.

HE CALLED IT a Garden Ministry, naming his volunteers “garden disciples.” At first, there was not much enthusiasm; only 12 volunteers showed interest in the beginning.

But now, 15 years later, after dozens of volunteer gardeners' aching backs and broken fingernails, Phillips’ Garden Ministry will have harvested a total of 480,000 pounds of veggies. By next season, he speculates that the volume will reach 500,000 pounds. “Or, a half million pounds of cabbage and sweet potatoes and all fresh garden good stuff. We’re on a roll,” he says.

Once again, it shows the goodness of Quad-Citizens who want to help the hard way. They may donate cans of green beans to food banks, but the gift of green beans fresh from the black earth is tastier.

Phillips began in 2002 with a tiny plot, 20- by 20-feet at the Rock Island Arsenal, where he was employed. Small, but it produced 2,000 pounds of vegetables, donated to shelters and food pantries.

FINDING A LOCATION was a long-standing problem. A promising break came when Doris Brockway offered a half-acre in Bettendorf. Church volunteers were ready to help, along with groups like Girl Scouts. A stranger saw an antique tractor on the Brockway plot. “That gave him inspiration to plow our new big garden spot,” Phillips says.

"Our biggest crop is tomatoes. This season, we will have harvested more than 20,000 pounds of tomatoes. It was so dry, one volunteer put a tin can with small holes alongside each tomato plant. A couple of times a week, he filled each can with water that gradually seeped into each plant.”

Over the years, the Garden Ministry had little luck with sweet corn, but a farmer allowed volunteers to glean his fields after he had finished his harvest. “One year, our efforts produced 830 dozen ears of corn,” Phillips says.

“One Saturday this year, I had the pleasure of delivering 400 pounds of potatoes, tomatoes and onions to Grace Bible Fellowship in Moline. We have well over a dozen recipients of our food.”

The distribution for this year ranges from 1,400 pounds of cabbage to 12,000 pounds of regular and sweet potatoes and 6,300 pounds of onions Next year there will be a push to grow watermelons.

The current growing field is an acre on land owned by Grace Evangelical Free Church in Davenport. Any volunteer not afraid to get their hands dirty can contact Phillips, coordinator of the project, at 563-340-6594.

Contact Bill Wundram at 563-383-2249 or bwundram@qctimes.com.