Keri Beirdneau was raised on Hot Pockets. As a native of Phoenix, it was just too hot and dry for her family to pursue gardening. They grew jalapenos and citrus trees, and that was it.

“As an adult, I became drawn to gardening, nature, this world that I had never experienced as a kid,” she said.

Now a mom of three young boys, Beirdneau loves gardening; it’s a huge part of her life. Five years ago, she planted her first seed at one of Community Action Services and Food Bank’s community gardens, and she’s been developing her green thumb ever since.

Community

Beirdneau, who lives in Provo, first heard about the gardens when a member of her church congregation announced that there was about to be a frost and asked if anyone would like leftover tomatoes from the community garden.

“I had no idea we had community gardens,” Beirdneau said.

She was living in a third-floor apartment that had a little patio and very little sunlight — and that happened to be right across the street from a community garden. With Beirdneau’s background, she felt drawn to gardening, and she decided to volunteer.

She found the community atmosphere inspiring. The garden manager, an AmeriCorps VISTA member, was in the garden every day, “working her tail off,” Beirdneau described. The gardeners ranged from experts to novices.

“We learned in the dirt together, elbow to elbow,” Beirdeau said, admitting, “I didn’t know the difference between a weed and a crop.”

During her first season in the garden, there were about 20 families participating.

“We had a bumper crop — my family ended up with 50 pounds of tomatoes right before the frost,” she said. “These gardens have so much potential to provide a lot of food in a small space if there are hands to help.”

Self-reliance

There haven’t been as many participants over the past couple of years, and COVID restrictions have meant that the gardeners work on their individual plots by themselves or with their families, rather than as a group. Without the guidance of seasoned experts, Beirdneau has become an expert herself.

“Having individual plots has forced me to go smaller and focus on aesthetic rather than widespread planting,” she said. “I’ve been YouTubing like crazy trying to learn.”

With trellises, spiraling configurations and eye-high sunflowers, Beirdneau’s most recent garden was a testament to how community support plus a striving for self-reliance can lead to amazing results.

“We overcomplicate things,” she said. “[Gardening] doesn’t need to be as hard as we make it. You throw a seed in the dirt and something’s going to pop up. There’s obviously a lot more that goes into it, but anybody can garden — you just need a little faith, hope and pixie dust.”

Emotional and physical health

Part of the original allure of gardening was Beirdneau’s desire to be healthier. She wanted to live a more sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyle.

“I liked the idea of having [our food] be local, to entirely negate the environmental impact of shipping,” she said. “It just spiraled from there. I wanted to learn how to do these things: grow local food, buy local peaches.”

As she and her sons have dug their hands into rich soil to cultivate their own produce, the fresh air and fresh food have been boons to physical health. In addition to that benefit, gardening can also boost emotional health, Beirdneau discovered.

Like many parents, Beirdneau began homeschooling during the pandemic. She joined several homeschooling groups on Facebook, where parents shared ideas and resources. That got her thinking: what if she started a gardening class for these homeschooled students?

She created a Facebook event for a class, and all the slots filled up within a day. So she ran a class during the fall 2020 semester. It turned out to be a much-needed boost to emotional health.

“I kept hearing from moms, ‘We needed to get out,’” she said. “They told me the garden was like a sanctuary: a secret garden.”

Spring 2021 will be Beirdneau’s fifth season of gardening, and she’s learned a lot along the way. One lesson is that just showing up to a task can be the hardest part; after that, it gets easier.

“I’ve been doing this on my own, as my husband hasn’t been available to help,” she said. “I could have looked for an excuse, especially when my kids were younger. But I just decided to start and see where it went, just one hour at a time. Don’t look for excuses to not show up; look for reasons to show up.”

Maria Valencia is the community garden manager for Community Action Services and Food Bank in Provo. CASFB is located at 815 S. Freedom Blvd., Ste. 100. For more information on the community gardens, educational programs, how to make donations, upcoming classes, food drives and more, visit www.communityactionprovo.org, or call (801) 373-8200.