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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Weedy area becomes community garden that draws people

by Kaye Hult

Bart and Michelle Gutz-Kleng
Bart and Michelle Gutz-Kleng in the community garden.

Before the spring of 2011, a half-acre area of the Lutheran Church of the Master grounds in Coeur d’Alene was filled with Knapp weed.  Now it is a thriving community garden, where members of the church and community grow a variety of produce to feed themselves and people in need in Kootenai County.

People of diverse races, abilities, income levels and faiths—Buddhists, atheists and various Christian churches—help grow organic produce there.  Volunteers and gardeners include two-parent and single-parent families, a man suffering effects of Agent Orange, two people with cancer, and some with hypersensitivity to chemicals.

An 80-year-old widow said, “I can come to the garden alone, but I don’t feel lonely here.” 

The pastor, the Rev. Bob Albing said 20 youth from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints helped clean up the garden at the end of summer.

“It was amazing to watch them work in the heat.  They are part of what makes it a community garden,” he said.  “We serve the community, and the community comes and serves with us.”

Last summer, two Eagle Scouts built some wheel-chair accessible beds that produced spaghetti squash and potatoes.

A third of the gardeners come from the congregation, and the rest are from the community. 

In 2010, Eula Hickam, a member of the congregation, approached the church council with a suggestion from AmeriCorps to use the land for a community garden.  It was too late that year.  The next year the council approved the idea, committing to provide the half-acre area, water and insurance. 

In spring 2011, council members Jeff Lien and Bart Kleng asked Bart’s wife, Michelle Gutz-Kleng to manage the project.

 “I had driven by the lot for four years, thinking, ‘I have to do something about that!’” she said.

For ideas, she and Bart visited the Shared Harvest Community Garden also in Coeur d’Alene. 

Mike and Kim Normand, who manage that garden, gave advice about setting up a board of directors and other aspects of developing the garden, including making rental contracts with gardeners. 

“What took them a year to do, we did in three months because of their advice,” said Michelle.

In March 2011, Michelle and Bart attended a Kootenai County Habitat for Humanity annual banquet.  Bart won the heads-and-tails game, giving them the $250 they needed for seed money for the garden.

One auction item was a nine-foot tall, black wooden replica of the Eiffel Tower.  Thinking it would fit in the garden, she bid on it and won.  With her background in interior design and landscaping, Michelle created a garden design with the Eiffel Tower as its centerpiece. 

From the start, creating the garden used the energy and skills of many people. 

Jeff, Bart and a fishing buddy dug the irrigation lines in a snowstorm.  They installed 12 faucets, one every 40 feet.  A 50-foot hose can reach every part in the garden. 

“We wanted people to work in the garden, so we use hoses rather than drip systems.  That’s also why we have raised beds,” Bart said.

Michelle designed the garden with 72 four-by-eight-foot beds.  Most have wood frames.  The beds designated for produce to donate do not.

“The gardens are organic.  We provide water and composted manure.  Last year, we used fish emulsion.  In the fall, we planted beds with winter rye, which is coming up this spring.  We’ll turn it under in March for green manure.  This year, our third year, we’ll finally have some compost of our own,” Michelle said.

Each person who rents a bed for $25 per season receives a volunteer task.  People in their 80s may water fruit trees.  Younger people may spread manure or bark or build beds.  Others weed or transport produce.

Church members help with the garden through their support of the church,” she said.  “Not everyone is a gardener, but everybody participates.  Older women contribute their egg shells and lettuce scraps for compost.”

The Lutheran Church of the Master, at the corner of Ramsey Rd. and Kathleen St., is in a high density, low-income neighborhood.  In that location, the garden has visibility that creates community awareness. 

“It is rare that someone drives by without looking, waving or honking,” said Bart.  “Neighbors tell us how wonderful it is to see this eco-friendly habitat full of butterflies, quail and doves.  Last year, a marmot passed through.”

This year, Michelle and Bart hope volunteers will work one-on-one with the gardeners who rent the beds.

Last summer, they added a shade structure, a place for people to sit and enjoy the garden or share a picnic.  When one gardener begins to participate, soon other family members come, from children to grandparents.

In 2012, the community garden added about 800 pounds of produce to that provided by other gardens for 15 area food banks and soup kitchens.  Their goal for 2013 is 1,000 pounds.  

Each community garden in Kootenai County has a different mission but “a universal theme is sharing what is harvested,” said Michelle.

Bart and Michelle handle much of the behind-the-scenes work. Melissa DeMotte does finances.

Not only has the garden brought a new sense of community, said Bob, but it also “has helped heal the congregation, which experienced a split in 2010.  The garden has been a positive force bringing the congregation back together.”

Bob is involved with the garden, meeting gardeners and volunteers, digging in the dirt and hauling compost.

While the garden draws people, it is not a project to recruit people to the church.  Instead it is intended as a gift “to give back to the community, to share our gifts with the community and our neighbors, to share God’s love,” Bart and Michelle explained.

“It’s a door through which the community can become a part of the church without even coming in the door,” Bob said.  “People can experience the grace of God through other people and through the experience of growing the garden.  God’s grace is at work in both.”

Bob enjoys it as a way to see “my congregants in a different context” and to “meet others from the community there in a relaxed setting.”

For Michelle and Bart, it’s like a part-time job they can do together.  It’s also a place to meet people and make friends.

“We’re there nearly every day in the summer, sometimes 12 to 14 hours on Saturdays,” said Bart. 

Feedback also motivates them.

One man with mobility problems told her:  “This is a piece of heaven on earth.”

Others say they may be in a bad mood when they come, but after gardening, they feel better.

“People connect here. We’re always introducing people to each other,” Michelle said.

Bart likens the garden to love:  “It nurtures us as much as it nurtures others.  Michelle and I can work and can sit and enjoy the beauty, the joy and the birds.”

When they are not in the garden, Michelle teaches piano.  She has run her own business for 25 years.  Bart is senior vice president of the Post Falls branch of Community First Bank, which supports his involvement in the garden.

Bart and Michelle hope their sons, Roman, 17, and River, 12, who have helped do construction, dig holes and pick up rock, will grow to love gardening, too.

Michelle’s parents, who live in Coeur d’Alene, rent a garden bed.  Her mother contributed 19 varieties of dahlias to the perennial and dahlia garden begun in 2012. 

“I come from a long line of Nebraska farmers,” said Michelle. “We wait all winter to garden.  That gets us through the winter.”

“It’s God’s gift” Bart added. “Every day it’s like a Christmas present.  Something has popped up or bloomed.  When we bite into fresh produce, it’s a continuous miracle.”

The spring registration for garden beds and the cleanup is from 2 to 4 p.m., March 17 at 4800 N. Ramsey Rd.

For information, call (208) 772-7928 or email

Copyright © March 2013 - The Fig Tree