OWATONNA — After a brief delay in spring because of the extended Minnesota winter, Steele County residents and students are taking to their gardens to plant.

And some Steele County employees are joining in thanks to a grant the county received from Allina’s “Neighborhood Health Connections” program.

The county received a $2,500 grant from Neighborhood Health Connections, which supports wellness and promotes healthy lifestyles one neighborhood at a time. According to the program’s website, the goal of the program is to help neighbors make new personal connections and strengthen existing ones through healthy activities.

“It’s another avenue for getting to know other employees within the county system,” said Nancy Borchardt, who works at Steele County Public Health. “It’s nice to meet their families, too, as they are working in the garden.”

The grant has been used for two projects: cooking classes, which were offered to county employees last fall, and a county employee garden.

“This is part number two,” Borchardt said.

Borchardt said seven Steele County employees and their families are working the garden, which is located next to the Steele County Annex Building.

It was originally intended to be a 10-plot employee garden, but Borchardt said not enough people signed up.

“We have three beginning gardeners, which two are sharing a plot, one who hasn’t gardened for a number of years and three with experience,” she said. “It’s fun to see everyone learning.”

This spring, the county had Master Gardener Deb Arlt at the University of Minnesota Extension office teach a class on gardening.

“We want to prepare confident gardeners and confident, healthy cooks,” said Jane Nyquist, Steele County Public Health educator.

Borchardt said there are a variety of vegetables and flowers planted in the employee garden.

“We push veggies, but my plot has flowers because I think they are part of a healthy life,” she said.

Each employee paid $20 for a garden plot, which along with the grant money, helped pay for rain barrels, compost bins, garden tools and a garden shed.

Borchardt said the snowy, rainy weather pushed the planting back a month, but she hopes it dries up soon.

“I hope it doesn’t stay that way, especially for the new gardeners to encourage them to keep with it and remain enthusiastic about gardening again next year,” she said.

But the Steele County employee garden isn’t the only one being used.

The Owatonna Public Library’s community garden is also getting some use this year.

Mary Kay Feltes, library director, said the garden has been set-up for years.

“Anyone is welcome to plant, anyone is welcome to work in it and anyone is able to eat from it,” Feltes said.

Feltes said the Owatonna Alternative Learning Center is helping with the garden for its second year.

“Two years ago, we started working with the library for summer school and several students truly loved it, so we decided to do it again and let the students decide what to do,” said Renate Klugherz, a special education teacher at the ALC.

Klugherz said there are two gardens that the students have planted a variety of vegetables and fruits in. The students are also using wood from Alexander Lumber to build butterfly houses and bird houses to attract more pollinators to the garden.

The students started planting last week, but are waiting for the weather to clear up before continuing.

“The kids do it all and this year they will have a bigger and better garden,” she said.

Klugherz said the garden is a great learning tool.

“We use it for science classes and to teach students real-life habits,” she said. “The garden is filled with a wealth of information, including how to cook, build, make things and see vegetation and animals. It’s a neat way to teach the kids.”

Reach reporter Ashley Stewart at 444-2378 or follow her on Twitter.com @OPPashley

Reach reporter Ashley Stewart at 444-2378 or follow her on Twitter.com @OPPashley

Owatonna People's Press reporter covering Steele County, Blooming Prairie and Medford government as well as health, transportation and community happenings. University of St. Thomas graduate.