On a typical sweltering July afternoon, Madi Walter interviewed Linda Ulmanis and Becca Gulino about The Shepherd’s Garden at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. Madi works as the Urban Agriculture Coordinator for the New Castle Conservation District, one of the original grant funders of the garden. Linda and Becca are good friends and co-coordinators and clearly love what they do.
You really need to come visit the garden to appreciate its magnificence. A wooden archway with hanging flowers and gnome sentries welcomes you into the lush garden, which is heavy with tomatoes and squash. Beans hang overhead. A sign points out where cucumbers might be hiding. There’s a children’s garden area and a large section of community beds. A well-kept shed keeps tools, guidebooks, and a seed library ready when needed. Corn grows tall enough to make you wonder how gardeners will reach the cobs to harvest them.
The garden grew from a humble response to a request for help and a calling to serve the community. When she saw a need for more fresh produce, the previous LCS Executive Director Jean Warren asked the community to help. Linda Ulmanis, a board member at LCS and congregant of Good Shepherd, had been contemplating ways to minister to others. The church had ample land, and Linda, along with her friend Becca, had the energy and drive to make it happen.
In 2017, Becca’s daughter built the first three raised garden beds as her Girl Scout Gold Award project. Linda served as her advisor. Together, they wrote grant applications and received funding from the Delaware Department of Agriculture and the New Castle Conservation District. The garden started small but garnered a huge amount of community support. Highland Orchards, Old Country Gardens, Carrie Murphy at the University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension, and many others shared their expertise, ideas, and time. People driving or walking by saw the garden and wanted to know more. Church members and neighbors watered it the first year (before Linda’s husband installed a glorious automatic watering system).
From its first three beds, the Shepherd’s Garden has provided many families the blessing of fresh produce. Volunteers pick, weigh, and deliver it to St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church on North Broom Street to distribute it through their LCS food pantry. A consummate engineer, Linda keeps a precise spreadsheet of what they produce. The Shepherd’s Garden yielded 670 pounds of vegetables the very first year. They added four more beds the second year (2018). Year two wasn’t quite as fruitful. “It was a bad tomato year,” both Linda and Becca quipped. They wanted to do more. The church had open space, but they realized the church alone could not support another expansion.
A field trip to Christ Lutheran Church in Oreland, PA inspired Linda and Becca with a possible solution - community garden beds. In 2019, they built and advertised 15 beds to neighborhoods around Good Shepherd. Unsure if there would be enough interest, they were pleasantly surprised when all were rented within just two weeks. Community gardeners agree to donate 10% of their yield to the food pantry. They do that and more. In 2019, the Shepherd’s Garden’s seven plots provided 1100 pounds of fresh produce to the LCS Food Pantry at St. Stephen’s. The community gardeners gave 900 pounds more.
2020 brought a pandemic as well as greater need. An industrious Boy Scout built 15 more beds, with his family serving as the support team and work crew. Outside in the garden was a safe place to be during COVID-19. Not only did it offer a change of scenery, but it provided an outlet for that desire to help in uncertain, ever-changing times. This time, the community garden beds were claimed in just four days. “Four days!” beamed Becca. Linda and Becca get excited every time they talk about how much the community loves these gardens: “You build it, and they come!”
From that same excursion to Oreland, PA, Linda and Becca returned with another idea - a donation cart. A Boy Scout built it, a banner went up, and word went out asking for donations. The wider community, wanting to do something during COVID, stepped up to fill the cart (and it’s not small - think of a roadside produce stand). Neighbors brought produce from their backyard gardens. Someone left foam coolers to help keep things fresh. Between the Shepherd’s Garden and the cart, volunteers weighed and delivered 3000 pounds of produce in 2020.
With more individuals out of work and additional families in need, Linda and Becca started accepting other kinds of donations (such as toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, masks, food). Becca remembers, “Those were the first homemade masks I saw.” They collected items every Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. When it was more than St. Stephen’s could store, they found other places to share the bounty. Linda recounted, “It was a miracle! We filled 2 cars at times. So much love!”
Still not out of steam, Linda and Becca wrote for grant money and started a meadow. Why? “For the critters, to improve water retention, and to attract pollinators,” Linda explains, “Otherwise, you’re just mowing another lawn.” The meadow is a Certified Wildlife Habitat with the National Wildlife Federation as well as a Monarch Waystation. They have additional plans for the meadow, including planting persimmon and serviceberry trees in October. A volunteer is taking a tree stewardship course in order to meet grant requirements.
Also in 2020, Linda and Becca added some chairs for gardeners and visitors alike to rest and enjoy the peace of the garden. You can tell someone has been there because the chairs move from one location to another as friends find just the right spot to relax. “Everytime we come out, they’re in a different place,” Becca jokes. “It’s beautiful,” adds Linda, “We love when people come here and tell us it’s their happy place.”
Improvements and additions include the shed a friend found refurbished at a used lot. “It was meant to be here!” Linda says. Installing the shed required moving the fence, and that meant space for four more community garden beds this year (quickly rented, with a waitlist for more). A Boy Scout built a compost station with a rain barrel and a bug house. Urban agriculture like this creates a tranquil oasis in an otherwise hustle and bustle environment.
The Shepherd’s Garden has grown and sown so much joy in its four years. Linda and Becca have put their hearts into this project. They’ve seen “so many miracles!” Church members have nurtured the garden and meadow. They’ve been able to hold services outside with the beauty of nature to add to the spirit. The garden itself is a form of ministry to those who visit it but don’t attend church. Beyond that, the wider community has embraced the garden and all it entails. Twenty-seven gardeners lease the 34 community beds. Only five are from the church.
“You can do the planting, and invite people in,” shares Linda. They want to give back. “We hope it’s shown people more ways we can give back. It’s beautiful. It’s fun!” Linda and Becca use social media to announce monthly themed donation drives for the donation cart (for example, toiletries or breakfast goods). Each time, the turnout is a testament of the generosity and compassion that’s out there.
Becca adds, “We have some successes and some failures, but it’s all good.” It’s better than good. Come see for yourself! If you are able to visit, the garden is at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd at 1530 Foulk Rd, Wilmington, DE, 19803. Learn about all our gardens and how you can volunteer there and sow joy on our garden page.