It’s a balmy spring day, and we sit in the lulling stillness that garden settings often afford in the morning hours. Although a steady stream of traffic buzzes just outside the Growing Together gates on Glendale Avenue in central Phoenix, it feels like a sanctuary. Secluded. Safe.
Annie Mittelstaedt, the garden’s co-founder, smiles when she is asked about how her vision transpired into the “holy” place where she is sitting today. Although her sunglasses cover the emotion reflected in her eyes, the smile that appears could tell a hundred stories. Stories that, if she had the time to share them all, would speak of countless moments orchestrated by the hand of God and the kindness of people, coming together to bring forth something unexplainable.
“Nine years ago, my husband and his brothers acquired this property to build on,” she begins. “The market wasn’t great at the time, so we decided to hold off. My friend Ronda, who is a Master Gardener, suggested we put a community garden on the land. That simple suggestion was how it all got started.”
So began a series of events that brought together the right people at the right time, most with scant experience in the movement of community gardening. “We formed a board of five people and began talking about what was possible. It took us about a year to put it together. Our initial vision grew into something much bigger than we could have ever imagined. We stood here with a shovel and made an opportunity for people to come alongside of us and do what they do. It really wasn’t about us at all, ” Annie says genuinely.
This vision laid a firm framework of what the garden has become: a volunteer-based nonprofit to help feed the community’s hungriest people. With a deep-rooted commitment to the belief that the “least should get the most,” they began connecting with people and organizations that could benefit from their harvests.
Today, organic fruit and vegetables from the garden are dropped off weekly at places like the Living Streams Church food bank, the Lighthouse foster home, and the Dream Center. Through these partnerships, along with their seasonal adopt-a-bed fundraiser, Garden Party Saturdays, where anyone can show up to serve or receive, and the planting of fruit trees on the property’s perimeter for people to pick food whenever they need it, Annie and her team have been able to offer multiple pathways to get people high quality food who wouldn’t normally be able to afford it.
Our initial vision grew into something much bigger than we could have ever imagined.
And that has led to an impressive amount of produce getting into these hands. Annie estimates over 10,000 pounds of organic produce has been donated since their humble beginnings – the equivalent of roughly 20 pounds per week – ranging from kale to bok choy, beets to melon, and everything in between.
Annie walks over to a plot and pulls up two perfectly shaped carrots from the rich ground. She brushes off the fresh soil as she explains that all of this is possible because of the kindness of others.
“The beautiful thing about the giving garden is the way it has brought together people from all walks of life. It’s not about the lettuce. It’s about what happens here – it’s a level playing ground. No one cares if you are homeless or a doctor. We get dirty and we take care of one another. Bottom line, this place is about the goodness of people,” Annie says as she looks across the garden’s yield.
The beautiful thing about the giving garden is the way it has brought together people from all walks of life.
It’s clear that this spirit of humanity has allowed the cultivation of something Annie could have never expected: the way food has ministered to people through creation. It’s so powerful, in fact, that Annie feels people often have a spiritual encounter when they come, whether they realize it or not. “When you watch something transform and sprout up that was a seed just a few weeks before, how can you not see God in that? It’s a powerful message. And it transcends to all people.”
The warm wind blows, rustling the vibrant flamingo-pink leaves of the blooming peach trees surrounding the garden. The fava bean bushes yearn toward the sky and the wildflowers seem to dance in their vividness. Everything here is thriving, receiving, and being nurtured, just as the Creator intended.
Annie pauses and looks around, taking in the moment that is evidently heavy with God’s provision.
“Every time I am here, I am blessed. Something happens here, I can’t totally explain it. But I don’t question it. I still can’t believe I get to be a part of it.”