BEMIDJI -- Bemidji homeschool junior Bridget Westrum fell in love with gardening thanks to the support of older and wiser Bemidji gardeners during the summer of quarantine.

Now, she hopes to help other young people do the same.

The 16-year-old received a grant and many local donations to fund her project “Growing Our Future,” through which she plans to distribute free garden kits to anyone under 18 in the area.

Getting her start

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Westrum’s journey with gardening began relatively recently. She decided to take up backyard gardening after having free time this summer since COVID-19 kept her mostly at home.

“We haven’t had time to grow anything before, so thought we might as well give it a try,” she said. “I just started gardening last year and loved it so much, (now) I want to teach other people my age.”

She soon became a member of the Facebook group Grow Bemidji, where she received advice and support from more experienced area gardeners.

“The whole group taught me how to garden pretty much,” she said with a laugh.

Westrum is no stranger to taking initiative and getting the ball rolling. She is a member of the Minnesota Youth Council representing Congressional District 7. There she works toward increasing the youth voice at the Capitol and creating change for the students of the district.

When she learned of an opportunity to apply for a grant through the youth council, she sprang into action. She titled her new idea, “Growing Our Future.”

A plant soaks in some rays of sun on Feb. 22 in Westrum's garden supply shed behind her home in Bemidji. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
A plant soaks in some rays of sun on Feb. 22 in Westrum's garden supply shed behind her home in Bemidji. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“I’ve done a lot of work with youth in our area,” Westrum said of her budding project. “I want to give more young people that opportunity. The goal is to provide free gardening and seed starting kits to all youth ages 18 and under, from in and around Bemidji, regardless of their living situation or financial status.”

Sharing supplies

Westrum’s back shed is filling up with seed starting trays, pots, soil and seed packets. Since mid-January, Westrum has been collecting and assembling gardening kits, which she hopes to distribute in mid-March.

The Bemidji gardening community seems to already be all about sharing -- advice, supplies, seeds and vegetables. Westrum’s hoping to share some of the love with youth in the area.

She is currently maintaining what she calls a “gardening arsenal” in her garden shed, which is piled high with buckets, pots, shovels and spades. This arsenal will be available to the youth participants upon request.

For those who are interested in participating, yet don’t have a yard, Westrum said she hopes to provide planters and container-friendly seeds to plant at apartment buildings and more.

Bemidji student Bridget Westrum fans out a handful of seed packets donated to her project on Feb. 22 in her garden supply shed behind her home in Bemidji. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji student Bridget Westrum fans out a handful of seed packets donated to her project on Feb. 22 in her garden supply shed behind her home in Bemidji. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“Don't have space to garden in the ground? Live in an apartment building? No worries. We will work with you until we figure out a solution,” she said. “I want these kits to be as accessible as possible for everyone.”

Each kit will include 8-12 varieties of seeds, containers for container gardening if needed, soil, plant markers, seed starting trays, planting instructions and gardening guides.

Sharing wisdom

Westrum isn’t alone in this effort. Her sister and her cousin are helping her assemble kits, and she’s seen a lot of community support thus far.

Plus, Grow Bemidji has her back.

“I’ve got experienced gardeners from around Bemidji and mostly from the ‘Grow Bemidji’ Facebook page, that have volunteered to create a gardening hotline, that I will share with the youth,” Westrum explained.

She has collected a team of 15 or so experienced gardeners in the area who have volunteered their time to assist youth with their kits over the phone. Each person who applies for a gardening kit will receive a couple of phone numbers from these willing helpers, in case they run into a problem.

Bemidji student Bridget Westrum stands with a chicken in front of her "gardening arsenal" on Feb. 22 in her garden supply shed behind her home in Bemidji. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji student Bridget Westrum stands with a chicken in front of her "gardening arsenal" on Feb. 22 in her garden supply shed behind her home in Bemidji. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

In the future, Westrum hopes to continue this effort long after this spring and summer. She wants to explore making indoor kits for fall and winter, so people can grow their own herbs year-round.

“I’m going to keep applying for grants so I can keep making kits,” she explained. “I’ll just keep making kits as long as I can.”

How to apply

A link is currently live for youth ages 18 and younger to apply for a gardening kit.

Westrum said she hopes to hold distribution dates in the Bemidji Target parking lot in March. She also noted she has budgeted to ship or deliver some kits as needed, to make sure people without transportation can still take part.

“I’ve just recently started this project in early January and I’ve already had so much support from the community. The project is entirely funded on donations.” Westrum said. “I’ve gotten a lot of donations from the community so far -- everyone is super excited -- and I am too.”

Donated seed starting trays sit in Westrum's garden supply shed behind her home in Bemidji on Feb. 22. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Donated seed starting trays sit in Westrum's garden supply shed behind her home in Bemidji on Feb. 22. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

If interested in donating new or used gardening materials, seed starting trays, hoses, gloves, seeds or fertilizer, send Westrum an email at bellawestrum@gmail.com.

Those interested in contributing to the project financially can do so via GoFundMe by mailing a check to P.O. Box 753, Bemidji, MN, 56619. More information on Westrum’s project can be found on the Growing Our Future Facebook page.