Susan Thorpe became a Michigan State University master gardener in the mid-2000s when the economy made a turn for the worse and “everyone was losing their jobs.”
“I had always loved gardening, and so in 2008, 2009, I went to MSU and got my certification,” the Grand Haven woman said.
Thorpe’s love for growing things started when she was young.
“I used to watch my foster mom garden,” she said. “She always had a flower garden and I would watch her digging on her knees in the dirt, and I loved that, to dig in the dirt, too. So, I’d grow anything I could in Styrofoam cups on the windowsill. I always found a way.”
Thorpe’s love for gardening and helping others has given her the opportunity to assist those with an itch to flex their green thumbs over the years, including with a Grand Haven church’s community garden.
“My husband (Doug) and I were attending Second Reformed Church about five years ago and that’s when the woman who was managing the community garden said that she was looking to step down,” Thorpe said. “So I volunteered.”
The community garden, which Thorpe believes started another five or so years before she started managing it, is on the church’s property at 1000 Waverly Ave. and is free to anyone who wants to garden there.
“You don’t have to be a member of the church to garden with us, and everything is provided for you,” Thorpe said. “We have a shed on the property full of tools and tomato cages, and we have a water supply out there – all you have to do is bring your own seeds.”
The garden runs strictly on donations from local individuals and businesses.
“I apply for a donation from the Meijer in town and they are wonderful and always donate,” Thorpe said. “We also have a woman who donates rabbit manure, which is the best for gardening with.”
The community garden is an open field that gets lots of sunshine and holds 20 plots of 4-by-8-foot gardens, lined with cement blocks donated from the Muskegon Cement Co. There’s space between each plot to work and move, as well as a shed full of tools and a bench. The garden area is surrounded by a critter-free fence and allows for the gardeners to come and go as they please.
As for those who garden there, Thorpe said that is a variety of people – some who have gardened before and some who never have.
“Usually one in five have never done this, so we make it fun, of course,” Thorpe said. “I encourage them to start out with plants to get immediate gratification, then move on to seeds. With the cinderblocks lining the plots, many people put flowers and herbs in the holes around the edges – there’s so much color, it’s beautiful.”
Whether or not a gardener is new to it or not, Thorpe is always happy to help.
“I give them a few tips,” she said. “I always suggest that they have plants or seeds in by the middle to end of May, so I encourage them in April to go out and turn over soil. I just remind them that once your garden gets going, you’ll have to keep up with it. And if they have questions about what to plant, I always tell them to plant what they’re going to eat.”
Thorpe said that all the gardeners have been successful and have had something to eat from their toil.
Besides impacting 20 families in the area each year through the garden, Thorpe loves watching families garden together and kids see where food comes from.
“A couple of ladies bring their grandchildren and teach them how to garden,” Thorpe said. “Some of the kids have never seen a carrot come out of the ground before, and when they help pull it out, they just think it’s the coolest thing. Most kids have never seen that before. It’s cute to see how some of the kids are just so wowed by this – that you can eat what they pick.”
Thorpe’s favorite part of overseeing the garden is “the reward of watching people learn how to garden.”
“I love watching the success of the gardens and watching them get excited to start again,” she said.
There are only two plots left in this year’s garden. If you are interested in learning more, email Susan Thorpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.