A bumper crop of zucchini squash came up last month in one of the community garden plots in Glen Ellyn, leaving onlookers somewhat behind the 8-ball.
Indeed, these small and perfectly round vegetables, which appear in orange, white and yellow varieties, are part of a hybrid series of zucchini known as the "pool ball series."
Nearby is a cornucopia of tomato varieties, including striped, green and even purple tomatoes.
These are just some of the many interesting crops flourishing in a pair of Giving Gardens started by DuPage County Master Gardeners from the University of Illinois Extension Service, including those in Glen Ellyn and Downers Grove.
Beyond showcasing some of the new hybrid varieties, these Master Gardeners are on a mission to increase their donations to their local food pantries, surpassing the 200 pounds they delivered last year.
"We're looking to grow vegetables that have a high yield," says Glen Ellyn Master Gardener Pam Kowalcyzk. "We're really want to have a bumper crop to be able to donate."
Kowalczyk and fellow Master Gardener Susan Renwick planted the seed for the idea last year when they rented a 20-by-20-foot garden plot at the Glen Ellyn Park District's Village Green Park.
"It's just such a feel-good project," Kowalczyk says. "We call it our 'Stone Soup Garden,' since we started with nothing and drew so many volunteers that we've been able to grow all these vegetables to share."
Already this summer, the Glen Ellyn garden - which now includes two of the community plots donated by the Glen Ellyn Park District - has produced more than 100 pounds of vegetables, and that was before the 30 varieties of tomatoes started to ripen.
Over in Downers Grove, Master Gardeners picked up on the Giving Garden idea this year and donated more than 75 pounds of vegetables over the first half of the summer, to food pantries at St. Mary of Gostyn and St. Joseph Catholic churches.
"It's all fresh," says Carol Nolan, the Master Gardener who serves as site leader for the Downers Grove garden. "It's usually delivered to the food pantries within 24 hours of being picked, so you can't get fresher than that."
DuPage County's 16 Master Gardeners rotate shifts to care for both gardens, typically visiting them twice a week to water and weed. While there, they visit with other community gardeners tending their plots, and answer any questions about growing vegetables.
"It's very interactive, and gets us back to our roots of being an agriculturally based, hands on extension service," Kowalczyk says.
Sarah Navrotski, who coordinates the Master Gardener program for the extension service, hopes to develop more Giving Gardens over the next few years.
Already, they are planning to include the community gardening project in their speaker's bureau selections, where area organizations can choose topics for Master Gardeners to address during a garden lecture and demonstration.
"I'd like to focus more of our programs like this, and get away from just beautification projects," Navrotski said. "This is a wonderful opportunity to garden - and help people."