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How SSE Helped Create a Large Family Garden

An aerial view of a backyard on a street corner, with garden beds, umbrellas, sheds, and a pond next to a house

Meet the Gassman Family

Bob and Shannon Gassman bought a property in Iowa City around 10 years ago. The house and yard were suitable for a young couple, however, the property was small—only an eighth of an acre. The turf grass yard seemingly had no room for a large family garden. But over the next decade, home gardeners Bob and Shannon transformed their property into a biodiverse paradise.

Parents to a toddler underfoot (with a baby on the way), Bob and Shannon dreamed of how they would raise their family. They wanted a lifestyle that included spending as much time as possible together outdoors.

A woman and a young girl kneel next to a garden bed outdoors, picking vegetables. An infant sits in a swing behind them.
Shannon and her kids pick greens together from the garden

Bob and Shannon turned to seed Savers Exchange for access to reliable seed and how-to knowledge for gardening for seed savers. The family continues to benefit from those formative seed packets acquired more than 10 years ago. They enjoy adding “new” and unique varieties to the garden each year. Now, their large family garden feeds their family of five all year round.

This month, consider making a gift that will connect young parents, like Bob and Shannon, to the seeds and know-how for beginning a garden. Your gift before December 31, 2023, is a gift that will grow for generations to come.

From Turf Grass to Paradise

A brick house on a street corner with a green lawn and a sidewalk
The Gassman family bought their Iowa City home in 2011.
Many lush plants and flowers grow alongside a brick house next to a sidewalk
Since 2011, the entire property has transformed into a paradise

When Bob and Shannon first moved in, turf grass covered their property. But they soon added several fruit trees, including apple and pear trees, to their front yard, and the transformation had begun.

They moved on to the side yard and added more fruit trees as well as fruit bushes. They planted blueberries, honeyberries, gooseberries, and currants. A productive cherry tree is a point of convergence for the Gassman family and their community. Bob and Shannon invite neighbors to forage food from trees and bushes and encourage community interaction and discussion.

“People ask questions, ‘What are you doing here?’ And we have the amazing opportunity to say, ‘Well why don’t you pick a piece, and see what we’re doing here!’ and they’ll taste something amazing,” says Bob Gassman.

A person holds a basket filled with red cherries
One cherry tree on the Gassman property has produced over 50 pounds of cherries.

A Space with No Boundaries

A brick house with a porch behind a garden and wooden monkey bar structure
The backyard is always changing
Several garden beds with plants in a yard, in front of a wooden structure, umbrella, greenhouse, pond, and several chairs.
The yard blends living space and garden space

From the start, the Bob and Shannon designed their landscape and large family garden with their kids top of mind. The Gassman family like to be outside as much as they can, and consider their yard an extension of their home.

According to Bob, there is no clear distinction between what is garden space and what is living or play space. Their yard is an ever-changing landscape that provides an abundance of food throughout the growing season. It also includes a playground, play kitchen, chicken coop and even a natural swimming pool.

It’s a space, really, with no boundaries.

Bob Gassman

The water in the pool is filtered through a gravel substrate which surrounds the pool’s perimeter. Plants in the substrate take up any dirt and keep the water pretty much clear. The beautiful pool has a small fountain and also attracts wildlife such as gray tree frogs, dragonflies and other pollinators.

A fountain mounted on the side of a pool pours water into the pool, surrounded by plants
The pool is filtered through a gravel substrate that lines the perimeter
Several children playing in a small outdoor yard pool while a woman holding a baby sits with her feet in the pool
The entire family enjoys the natural pool

According to Shannon, their landscape has a positive impact on her family: “We’re just happier. We’re happier outside. We feel more healthy. Our kids are calmer if they can just have free time outside.”

Several children prepare food on an outdoor bench
Their backyard features a play kitchen for their children

Growing Food for Five

With three growing kids, someone from the Gassman household is always hungry. However, Bob and Shannon are able to grow an abundance of food in just a small amount of garden space.

In the front and side yards, the Gassman family grows blueberries, honeyberries, currants and gooseberries. They have several fruit trees, and one cherry tree has produced over 50 pounds of cherries alone!

A child climbs a fruit tree. Behind him is a house, a woman holding a baby, and another child picking fruit from the tree
The children enjoy picking fruit from the cherry tree

In their backyard, Bob and Shannon grow plenty of different vegetables such as tomatoes, beans, peppers, and leafy greens. Chickens provide the family with fresh eggs. The space changes almost daily, and the family is able to pick food to eat throughout the entire growing season.

Bob and Shannon also planned their outdoor space with intentional foraging spots for their kids. For example, they built a strawberry patch at the perfect height for their kids so that gathering berries would be easy. Shannon also appreciates the many benefits of growing strawberries as opposed to buying berries from the grocery store. The kids wait for strawberry season and get excited when the fruits come, knowing that they are eating food that they helped to grow.

What food the family doesn’t eat fresh, they preserve. Crops such as tomatoes can be canned. Other vegetables can be dried.

In addition to preserving their vegetables, Bob and Shannon also preserve fruits such as apples, plums and cherries. Shannon grows and dries mint, lemon balm, and lemon grass for use throughout the winter.

Bob and Shannon save seeds from their bounty for future planting, and some crops even volunteer seeds year after year. Thanks to Bob and Shannon’s creativity and resourcefulness, the family can enjoy food from the garden all year long, and for years to come.

Watch this segment from Iowa City Lawn Love, featuring the Gassmans, to learn more about their story.

The Problem for Beginning Gardeners

The truth is, many young adults and families aspire to start a garden and grow their own food. But these dreams can seem daunting.

How many young people have never gardened? How many don’t understand the benefits of open-pollinated seeds? How many don’t know how to save seeds to plant again?

How many people have these aspirations, but don’t know how to start?

Seed Savers Exchange believes that anyone can achieve a lot, regardless of their experience, resources, or land size. For almost 50 years, Seed Savers Exchange has connected gardeners like Bob and Shannon with reliable seeds and the how-to knowledge to start gardening for seed saving.

A woman and a child kneel in front of a garden bed and harvest greens. A baby sits in a swing behind them
The Gassman family continues to grow crops from seeds first purchased over 10 years ago and saved over time

We Need Your Help!

You can help us achieve this mission. Your gift will connect gardeners with open-pollinated seeds and the know-how of gardening for seed saving. Your gift will help feed a family this year and for years to come.

Imagine a world where children, like Bob and Shannon’s, spend their free time outside amongst nature. A world where children learn to eat with the seasons and appreciate the seasonality of food. A world where young adults carry gardening experience they learned as small children into adulthood. A world where families have access to healthy food right outside their doors.

Your gift will grow for years to come

More Ways to Get Involved

Want to do more to become an active part of the Seed Savers Exchange community and support our mission? We have plenty of ways to get involved.

Manage your charitable giving through ‘My Giving Portal’ (FAQs).

Other ways to support: Spread our mission and our stories! Share this post with your own community.

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