Seedleaf grows gardens — and gardeners, cooks

A seed leaf is the first sign that a plant might take root and flourish. It seemed like an appropriate metaphor for what Ryan Koch hoped to do in Lexington.

Koch’s idea began germinating in 2007, when a farmer donated a garden plot to Communality, a small Christian faith community to which Koch and his wife, Jodie, belonged.

The experience led Koch and others to form Seedleaf, a non-profit organization with this goal: “Nourish communities by growing, cooking, sharing and recycling food.”

Seedleaf now sponsors eight community gardens in the East End and north side neighborhoods, plus one in Gainesway and another at Sayre School. The organization works with 16 restaurants and caterers to collect pre-consumer waste food to turn into compost to nourish those gardens.

Seedleaf also partners with other non-profits to do educational programs aimed at restoring local food culture, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“I want us to serve as a reminder,” said Koch, a Californian who came to Kentucky to study at Asbury Theological Seminary. “There was a time when we wouldn’t have needed a Seedleaf because people knew how to grow and cook their own food.”

Seedleaf celebrated the end of its fourth growing season last weekend with a picnic Saturday to thank volunteers. Koch estimated that 1,200 volunteers — many of them college students — have helped with gardens and programs.

“We’ve come to be trusted in Lexington as a place where volunteers can come in and be well-used,” he said.

On Sunday, there was another picnic for six young people who completed this summer’s SEEDS program. Service Education and Entrepreneurship in Downtown Spaces is a training program for fifth- through eighth-graders, sponsored by Blue Grass Community Foundation.

Each student spent more than 70 hours working in the gardens and taking classes, said Rebecca Self, Seedleaf’s education director and only other employee. After asking neighbors what kind of produce they would buy, the students planted, raised and harvested vegetables and sold them at the William Wells Brown Community Center. The most popular items: tomatoes, collard greens and green beans.

What the students enjoyed most, though, was learning to cook and eat what they grew. They were taught cooking skills by Self and chef Ouita Michel, who owns the Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station and Windy Corner restaurants.

Twin sisters Rosa and Petra Navarro, 15, said they like fresh vegetables a lot more than they did before their work with SEEDS. So does Jawuan Walker-Brown, 12.

“I really enjoyed myself,” he said “I got to cook and eat — I really like to eat.”

The largest of Seedleaf’s spaces is the London Ferrell Community Garden on East Third Street, between Lexington’s main fire station and the Old Episcopal Burying Ground. The garden is named for a prominent minister in the early 1800s who is the only black person buried in the all-white cemetery next door.

The London Ferrell garden includes 40 plots that neighborhood families can rent for $5 a year. Plus, there are plots for SEEDS participants and a community plot with produce for anyone who helped tend it.

Seedleaf provides meals to Kid’s Café at the East Seventh Street Center, using its produce and food from God’s Pantry.

The organization also teaches cooking classes at the Florence Crittenton Home on West Fourth Street, one of the nation’s oldest shelters for pregnant girls.

“They’re going to have to feed themselves and a baby, and this points them toward independent living,” Koch said.

Koch and Self are pleased with how their seed leaf has flourished, but they have bigger ambitions.

Seedleaf’s annual budget of about $70,000 comes equally from grants, donations and money earned from composting and other services. Koch said he would like to add another staff member or two to help manage the growing corps of volunteers.

In addition to making people healthier and more self-sufficient, learning how to grow and prepare food can promote generosity and neighborliness, Koch said.

“We want to grow more gardens,” he said. “But more than that, we want to grow more gardeners and teach people how to cook. We see a lot of opportunities to partner with people and organizations that are doing good things in Lexington.”

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