FLOURISHING: Purdue Extension’s Ginny Roberts cultivates community through garden projects 

When she was a young wife and mother, Ginny Roberts lived in the side of a remote hill. Nearing retirement, she moved into a rehabbed 164-year-old house. Wherever Roberts is planted, she flourishes — just like the gardens she loves to nurture.

Now she’s helping the Southside tend a community garden in a sector of food insecurity, where residents don’t always have access to sufficient nutritious food.

Roberts is part of the team responsible for Gardening Together, a program at Bethany Lutheran Church on East Street south of the I-465 overpass. Produce from the community garden will benefit the church’s preschool meal program, volunteer gardeners and area food pantries.

Roberts is the urban garden manager for the Purdue Extension in Marion County and state lead for the National Farm to School Network.

A graduate of Broad Ripple High School, she discovered a love for gardening with her first husband, Steve Roberts, in rural Whitestown. He was looking for work in psychotherapy and eventually found a position in southern Indiana. The couple relocated to a remote property near Celestine between Jasper and French Lick.

“We knew we wanted to build an efficient house,” Roberts said.

Contractors poured concrete into a frame installed in the side of a hill, and roofers secured the top. The Roberts installed a wood-burning stove and solar panels. She grew a produce garden, using the vegetables in her cooking. As their family grew, Roberts took on work outside the home, living part-time in a residential group home for troubled youths.

Her own children, meanwhile, were attending public school in Celestine, but she was dissatisfied with the instruction they were receiving. At the same time, her husband wanted to open his own psychotherapy practice, so he returned to Indianapolis. The family soon followed. Roberts at first worked in her husband’s practice, and in 1998 she was hired as an assistant to the urban garden coordinator for Purdue Extension.

Her first project was to help gardeners in the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood. While the community garden project was “great,” Roberts said, the infighting was not. Someone from outside the group had chosen the garden area to implement a grant, and he clashed with others. This experience gave Roberts valuable insight. As she works alongside gardeners, she strives to help them define projects “based on their vision,” she said.

Over the last two decades, Roberts has consulted with “hundreds and hundreds” of schools to build gardens. Teachers report positive results, describing improved student behavior and better nutrition. Children are more likely to try new food when they grow it themselves, she noted.

School therapists have commented that gardens help to calm and inspire children who struggle with emotional issues. One school built a shade structure in the garden, then held therapy sessions there.

Roberts is now married to Don Horstman, a landscaper. Her next big vision is to create an educational site in the wetlands near her home. She and Horstman bought the Thomas Askren House, built around 1828 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, near 16th Street and Pleasant Run Parkway. Once the target of vandals and gangs, the house has been restored to life. Of course, the grounds receive equal attention from the owners. The landscape includes plantings Horstman’s clients no longer wanted.

“It’s a big infirmary,” Roberts said.