Cheryl LeBlanc & Holly Hanauer

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Local gardeners and longtime friends Cheryl Leblanc and Holly Hanauer pose near a vanilla plant located at Ball State’s Rinard Orchid Greenhouse, where Cheryl serves as coordinator. Holly grows all that she can in her massive garden, and gives away all that she cannot use to local food pantries.

By Stasia Merkel

Long-time friends Cheryl LeBlanc and Holly Hanauer met 25 years ago through mutual friends, and it didn’t take long for them to find common ground: both grew up on farms, both moved to Muncie because of their husband’s work, both have kids the same age, both live down the street from one another, and both are passionate about gardening.

“It’s the only lifestyle we know,” LeBlanc said. “It was just apart of our upbringing, our pioneer spirit,” Hanauer added.  

The two maintain robust gardens at their Muncie homes, feeding raspberries, onions, apples, garlic, tomatoes, and green beans with table scraps they’ve churned into organic compost.

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Holly Hanauer at one of her composting stations at her Muncie home. Compost is a great way to put your kitchen scraps to good use, she said, and it does wonders for the flavor and nutritive value of produce.

“Growing your own food results in feeling confident, eating healthier, and being in control of what is on your table,” said LeBlanc, who is greenhouse curator at the Dr. Joe and Alice Rinard Orchid Greenhouse. “The best part: produce from your own garden is unparalleled in freshness and taste.”

Gardening keeps you on your toes

But even for these seasoned gardeners, growing fruits, herbs and vegetables is a humbling experience. “It is about relying on yourself and testing your skills,” said LeBlanc. “If you don’t know something, look it up, and learn about it. through neighbors, the Master Gardeners, books or the tons of blogs and such online.” 

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Cheryl LeBlanc looks out at her backyard garden. Although her space to garden isn’t extensive, she makes the most with what she has, and has been quite successful doing so.

The friends also agree the practice requires a modest start.

“Don’t go out and buy twenty plants,” said LeBlanc, who recommends tomatoes and zucchini for beginning gardeners. “It doesn’t have to be a big piece of land. You just need to dedicate one small plot of land to sustain a family,.”

If something doesn’t grow right on your first attempt don’t fret: both Cheryl and Holly have had to overcome gardening woes. Issues with finding sunny spots, hungry critters, and troublesome walnut trees are issues the two experienced home gardeners have collectively faced.

“There is always a constant learning horizon,” says Cheryl, but taking the time to learn can really come in handy.

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For a while, Holly could not figure out why some produce in her garden just wouldn’t grow. She eventually learned that the black walnut tree in her yard was to blame. Walnuts contain jugalone, a chemical toxic to many plants. Although she still has walnut trees surrounding her yard, Holly has learned to lay plants affected by jugalone away from the trees.

Involving small hands in big work

A few years ago when Muncie was hit by a storm and suffered a power outage that lasted eight days, both the ladies were happy and at ease. All of their friends got together, relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company. They camped out in their houses, played card games, and made soup out of thawed items from their freezers.

“To be able to take care of yourself in an emergency,” Cheryl recollected, “When you can do it all the time, why wait for an emergency?”

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Strawberries in Holly’s garden that are just beginning to peak through the straw. Straw keeps the strawberry plants warm during the cooler months and helps the berries retain moisture and away from pests. Although strawberries can be a lot of work, the worth of the sweet berry is worth the work.

Across the country, we are currently facing a food emergency every day. About 23.5 million people in the United States live in food deserts, or geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options scarce because grocery stores are over a mile away. Often times in food deserts, the only option to buy food is at convenience stores that are bombarded with junk food. Not a glimpse of fresh produce in sight.

This issue does not exclude Muncie. Roughly 64 percent of Muncie residents live in food deserts, and one in four Muncie residents are food insecure, this food problem hits home.

“When you think about food insecurity but look at all the land we have and it’s potential for growing food, it doesn’t make sense,” says Holly.

While recently visiting China with her husband, she noticed the Chinese resourceful use of land, and how every bit of acreage was being aggressively utilized. “If there was a cell tower out in a field, if you could walk under it, they were using it for farming…even the small patches between train tracks and the highway were being used as farm plots,” she noted.

“It’s being resourceful and using what you have, changing the way you look at things, and changing what you view as an acceptable use of land.”

This innovative use of space for farming is becoming more and more popular here in the United States, but we clearly still have a long way to go. It starts with education and teaching others that they too can be independent and empowered by practicing self-sustainable farming methods. If you someone who already has a green thumb, you can help by “reaching out to friends and neighbors who might not know and teaching them,” says Cheryl.

Having a home garden does not have to be expensive, and the returns on what you harvest far exceed the labor that goes in. “What you can grow in your own space is the more coveted, more expensive, organic produce. Why not at least try?”