This time last year, Elizabeth Hibbard couldn’t see herself gardening.
Hibbard, the resident manager at Sayre House of Hope, which provides a place to stay for families of patients at Guthrie’s Sayre campus, hadn’t played in a garden since childhood, and said she had a tendency to kill her houseplants.
So when volunteers from Project GROW approached her about installing raised garden beds at the Chemung Street house last year, Hibbard was apprehensive about assisting them.
Approaching Hibbard on a warm, sunny Wednesday in the yard, preparing the soil for a second season of planting, you’d never be able to tell that she was a timid beginner just a year ago.
One of the beds is covered with fabric — a “row cover” technique, she calls it — to protect crops from frost and warm them during the early growing season. The technique was successful at one of Project GROW’s beds in East Sayre last year, Hibbard said.
She talks of all the crops she can’t wait to grow for the first time — bell peppers, cucumbers, strawberries — and of the peas, carrots, lettuce and spinach that will grow under the covered bed. She tells of how marigolds, which will be planted around the beds, serve as a natural deterrent, protecting the beds from deer and other wildlife. Seedlings she started in her second-floor apartment take in sunlight on the porch.
Once Hibbard dug into the ground, she was hooked.
“I ended up taking over the garden completely,” she said. “It’s a great hobby. It’s very rewarding.”
Hibbard and other volunteers have spent the last week preparing about 20 beds throughout the Valley for spring planting. Crops generally go into the ground in May, but some preparation of the soil is necessary, including mixing in compost and working on beds.
Last year, the house’s gardens yielded plenty of produce for the guests at the house, giving them a chance to enjoy a wholesome meal. Hibbard said she has added a wider variety of plants this year, based on the feedback she’s received from guests. 
In addition to vegetables, another bed will grow herbs, flowers and berries. The guests enjoy watching the berry garden, a reassuring presence at a time of uncertainty and stress while their loved ones receive care at the hospital, Hibbard said.
“It’s nourishment for the body and the spirit,” she said. “Watching plants thriving gives them hope.”
Last year, Project GROW focused on planting and maintaining beds throughout the Valley in an effort to promote the area’s local food system.
This year, a youth training initiative will become a primary focus of the program, said Project GROW founder Destiny Kinal.
Education has been a cornerstone of the project, with demonstrations and the promotion of a sustainable food system at the heart of its first year. Students at Athens Area High School and Waverly Middle School are growing heirloom tomatoes in greenhouses for the third year, and Project GROW has worked with churches, Scouting groups and other social organizations to further its cause, Kinal said.
This year, Penn-York Opportunities will provide help with beds located at the Enterprise Center in Sayre, Hibbard said. The organization has also been growing seeds inside through a starter kit, she said.
The response has been great throughout the community, she said, with successful collaboration between people and organizations.
Kinal plans this year to get the ball rolling on another phase of Project GROW: to employ and train youth to garden and learn conservation practices. Youth from Bradford County in Pennsylvania and Tioga and Chemung counties in New York will participate, Kinal said.
The program will give youth who may be at risk or choose not to attend college the opportunity to learn a trade that has disappeared in the area in recent years, she said. In addition to gardening skills, values such as cooperation and work ethic can be picked up in the field.
“People are walking away from this great farming opportunity we have in the Valley,” Kinal said. “It’s not too late to save it.”
Since last year, Project GROW has received its 501(c)3 non-profit status and has formed a solid base of volunteers and board members. 
The organization received funding from the United Way this year and plans to pursue fundraising options to help fund next year’s youth training initiative. A website will soon be launched as well, Kinal said.
An heirloom tomato sale will take place beginning in mid-May in front of the Sayre Theatre. Project GROW volunteers plan to hold demonstrations at several beds, and classes, dinners and activities will be held throughout the growing season, board members said.
The group also plans to donate its excess produce to local food pantries again this year, including the Salvation Army food pantry and soup kitchen, Hibbard said.
Project GROW is looking for additional shared greenhouse space and volunteers to help water, harvest, make and can foods. No experience is necessary, just ask Hibbard, who’s gone from a reluctant novice to a full-fledged enthusiast in a year’s time.
“It is surprisingly easy,” she said. “I’m having fun.”
For more information about Project GROW or to participate, call the project’s answering machine at (570) 886-0940 and someone will return your call.
Amanda Renko can be reached at (570) 888-9652; or email: arenko@thedailyreview.com.