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Food and Community: Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Site

March 30, 2021 2:22 PM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park is a 50-acre site overlooking Canandaigua Lake that features gardens, a historic mansion, and a greenhouse complex. Sonnenberg’s Queen Anne-style mansion was built in 1887 and is the former summer home of Frederick Ferris and Mary Clark Thompson. Mary Clark Thompson’s utility garden produced food that was donated to the Ontario County Orphanage and Thompson Hospital for decades. In the past six seasons, Sonnenberg has donated over 6,000 pounds of fresh produce to the local community. 


Lasting Legacy

The utility garden is formerly the kitchen garden and is in the area of the mansion grounds that was the working end of the farm where all of the food was grown. “Mrs. Thompson has a garden here that she used to feed people in need in Ontario County,” said Executive Director David Hutchings. “We’ve reinvented that starting back in 2010 or 2011 with replicating Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House kitchen garden.” By 2015, Sonnenberg then moved on with a revamping of Mrs. Thompson’s utility garden. “The garden today is 70 by 100 square feet with raised garden beds to help make the garden accessible for day camp participants from the ARC and YMCA.” Sonnenberg utilizes its historic greenhouse to display its horticultural collections and grow thousands of annual and perennial plants and vegetables each year. The 13,000 square foot greenhouse maintains its original frame and is climate controlled year-round.


Community of Volunteers

“The garden is planted each year with volunteers,” said Hutchings. Pat Hutchings, David’s wife, is the lead volunteer and designer of the garden. Other key volunteers include David DeMallis, Jun Lui, Kerry Mette, Laura Mauser, and several others including workforce development program personnel. In addition to being Sonnenberg’s Executive Director, Hutchings is also the Horticulturalist, overseeing all the gardens. 

Before COVID, other volunteer groups included parishioners from the Church of Latter Day Saints. In the early days of COVID, student interns from Finger Lakes Community College helped plant the garden. During the pandemic, Nate Wendroff was awarded his Eagle Scout Merit Badge as he led his troop with many COVID-19 safety restrictions to help plant the garden for the 2020 season.


Feeding the Community

The seeds are donated by Seedway and All-American Seed Selection and the planting begins in March in the greenhouse and then in the ground each May. The food is harvested in the summer through Thanksgiving. “In the summer we harvest squash, eggplant, many varieties of tomatoes and peppers, herbs, beans, and corn,” said Hutchings. Flowers are also grown for visitors to enjoy and as a companion crop for natural pest control. “The herbs from the garden are grown and used at the specific request of Gleaners Kitchen to enhance the fresh flavoring of the meals made for the community they serve.” 

In 2020, Sonnenberg donated nearly 1,000 pounds of produce to Gleaners Kitchen to meet the 90 meals per day as well as donating to the Zion Church which recently opened up a county-wide food bank. Gleaners Kitchen is a community kitchen that opened in Canandaigua in 1987. It takes the name “gleaning” from the act of collecting crops leftover from farmers’ fields after a commercial harvest. “One of the cool things is that any leftover produce at the end of the week is included in the other end of the week leftovers for people to come and take,” said Hutchings. “Now there are fresh vegetables to go with it so we’re rounding out people’s diets for those who need it.” Gleaners Kitchen partners with Wegmans and Tops grocery stores to receive food donations that would otherwise go to waste.


Funding

Sonnenberg received support from The Mary Clark Thompson Community Health Grant which previously funded the site’s wheelchair accessible greenhouse work area and multi-level handicap work benches. Other funding partners include the Canandaigua Rotary, the Sonnenberg Garden Club, and Walmart Community grants. “The Canandaigua Rotary donated $3,000 for an updated irrigation system. We’re grateful for the community’s support.”


Future Goals

Sonnenberg recently received funds for their restoration project for the West Display Greenhouse to make the space safe for visitors. The greenhouse, called Gardenia Greenhouse, will become an educational area greenhouse for students to work with their local schools to develop science programs at Sonnenberg. “We have six greenhouses and we’re trying to use all of them,” said Hutchings. This grant will help with the operational sustainability of the greenhouse that is currently not utilized because of physical deterioration. 

Hutchings is also looking to partner with area colleges to further develop their Horticulture Program. “We are continuing to be the only institutions in the Finger Lakes introducing a Vocational Therapeutic Horticulture Program for continuing education,” said Hutchings. “Area colleges like Nazareth and FLCC are exploring how to develop this aspect of their horticulture field.” 

Sonnenberg is one of just two public gardens in the New York State Parks system. “In 2021, we plan on donating another 1,000 pounds of fresh produce and continuing the legacy of the Thompson and their property to the local community,” said Hutchings. “We feel like we are fulfilling the lasting legacy of the garden’s original purpose.”


Learn more about Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park: https://www.sonnenberg.org/

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