bath twp.: Growing food is a year-round pursuit in Hattie’s Garden.

So is providing employment opportunities.

Hattie’s Garden is operated by Hattie Larlham, the nonprofit organization that originated in Mantua to serve people with developmental disabilities. The garden — more like a miniature farm — is on the grounds of Crown Point Ecology Center, an organic farm run by the Sisters of St. Dominic.

Here, two supervisors and three workers are laboring through the winter, growing cold-tolerant crops for Hattie Larlham’s chain of Hattie’s Cafes. Garden Manager Nathan Edge expects to add five workers, probably in summer when the growing capacity expands.

The garden provides employment and job skills for people with disabilities, as well as fresh, organic, locally grown produce for the cafes. It also serves as a sort of agricultural learning laboratory, where supervisors and workers can test and improve on growing methods.

Hattie’s Garden started last May with eight raised beds where gardeners John Hercules, Tim Woods and Demajio Dameron grew vegetables and herbs under the direction of Liam Murray, a master gardener who helps supervise the crew. But Murray wanted to see production extended beyond Northeast Ohio’s limited growing season, so he challenged the workers to find a way to continue to garden right through the winter.

“If we don’t go 12 months, the guys in our program would lose their jobs,” said Dotty Grexa, Hattie Larlham’s vice president of social enterprise. “… We just figured we’re going to get innovative and find a way to garden year-round.”

The solution came in several forms. One is low tunnels fashioned from PVC pipe and plastic, which cover the raised beds and boost the temperature inside enough to grow cold-tolerant crops such as spinach, endive and lettuce. Another is an unheated hoop house, a larger version of the low tunnels that’s tall enough to stand up in and provides space for more crops. The third is a heated greenhouse where Crown Point has given the gardeners temporary space to grow less hardy lettuces and start seeds for a variety of crops they’ll plant outdoors in the spring.

So far production has outstripped expectations, Edge said, although the mild winter has undoubtedly helped. Currently, the garden produces five to 10 pounds of lettuce a week, but earlier in the winter, it was supplying about 75 pounds of produce to the cafes weekly. That included some root crops that had been harvested in fall and stored, Edge said.

Hattie’s Garden sells the produce to the cafes, much like any produce wholesaler. “Obviously, they get the benefit of an organic, locally produced product that’s more nutritious,” Edge said.

Gardening in winter has its challenges, however. The crew members had to figure out how to secure the low tunnels over the beds after some blew off in the wind, and they’ve started blanketing the plants at night with nonwoven fabric for added insulation. Every morning they have to check the tunnels and decide whether to open them to vent, because a buildup of heat on a sunny day could be enough to kill a crop.

Shorter days and fewer hours of sunlight limit which crops they can grow in winter, even in a heated greenhouse, so they’re concentrating on a small selection of plants that do well in the cold, Edge said. Some of those have been more successful than others.

“It’s been a learning process,” he said.

In fact, learning is intentionally part of the program. Currently, the crew is involved in a soil experiment, growing radish seeds in various soil blends to see which produces the best crop.

The crew members are also learning skills beyond gardening, such as the construction methods they used to build the raised beds.

They seem to be absorbed by what they’re learning, Grexa said. “I mean, their lunchtime conversation is about soil,” she said with a smile.

The crew members’ gardening skills aren’t limited to growing plants. They also care for 21 chickens that produce eggs for the shareholders in Crown Point’s community-supported agriculture program, and they maintain a composting operation that uses worms in the final step to produce a rich soil amendment for their planting beds.

Already they have plans to expand. The ideas include adding chickens so they can supply eggs to Hattie’s Cafes; expanding their composting operation so they can produce compost to sell; harvesting and marketing worms and their rich excrement, called castings; and expanding herb production so workers can dry the herbs and create Hattie Larlham’s own brand of tea. The tea venture would create indoor work for days when working outside isn’t feasible, Grexa said.

Ultimately, Hattie’s Garden hopes to grow all the produce for Hattie’s Cafes, she said. It also intends to create covered beds at Hattie Larlham’s group homes, where food can be grown for the’ residents.

In the meantime, Hattie’s Garden is a source of both knowledge and pride for its workers.

Woods said he’d grown tomatoes and peppers at home, but he never knew food could be grown in winter. Hercules was eager to explain some of the gardening methods for a visitor and said he especially likes taste-testing the vegetables he and his fellow gardeners produce.

Their success lies in their Earth-friendly practices, Hercules said.

“Like Grandfather always said, ‘You respect the Earth, and she’ll provide you a bountiful harvest,’ ” he said.

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or mbrecken@thebeaconjournal.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at marybeth.ohio.com.