HILLSBOROUGH — Duke Farms, the 2,700-acre former estate of globe-trotting philanthropist Doris Duke, is one of the largest preserved properties in the state of New Jersey.

Since 2012, five of those acres have been dedicated as a Community Garden, where the public rents plots in order to grow organic produce.

The gardeners also are expected to give back. A portion of the crops are donated to Somerset County food banks that help feed needy families.

Last year, gardeners donated 1,600 pounds of produce. That included some 30 different vegetables, chief among them lettuce, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and herbs.

Duke Farms set a goal of 2,000 pounds for 2016, but has well surpassed that with 3,190 pounds donated.

The idea for the garden grew out of the emerging want of Somerset County residents who live in condominiums, apartments or neighborhoods where where zoning rules may interfere with gardening.

The Community Garden is the largest allotment-style arrangement in the country, with 462 owners tending to plots of different sizes. Gardeners pay a fee for their piece of soil — $20, $40, or $60 for plots ranging from 10 by 10, 15 by 15 or 15 by 30 feet.

Tanya Sulikowski, manager of the Community Garden, said owners are also asked to participate in garden-related educational courses offered by Duke Farms and volunteer on the property.

Duke Farms, a large part of which is preserved open space, is free to the public and receives operating funds through the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Nine hundred acres are open to the public, including 17 miles of hiking trails.

The Community Garden is segmented into seven "neighborhoods" with names like Rutabaga Ridge and Brocoli Boro. Each neighborhood has one plot designated as a Giving Garden, where gardeners pitch in. Once a week during peak growing seasons, those crops are harvested and donated to the Hillsborough Food Bank, Somerset County Food Bank Network, Feeding Hands of Somerville and the Agape House and Safe & Sound shelters.

"I think it was a natural fit," said Melissa Almendinger, Community Garden educator. "Part of the program was to think how we can give back to the community. This was an idea that came up, and we've just been nurturing it and seeing where it goes, and how to best accomplish giving the most food to our community."

Next year the produce donation goal will be 4,000 pounds.

"Our goal is really just to keep growing and to get more efficient at what we're growing," Almendinger said. "We'll continue to educate people on what to plan and when, and then I think our numbers will just continue to climb."

To find out how you can get involved, go to dukefarms.org.

Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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