Conservation Currents

Community Gardening

March 2010

by Shelly Stiles

The community garden that set me on the road to becoming a horticulturist was razed and plowed under in October 1984, a victim of that decade’s development boom in New York City. Still I remember many of the plants we grew in the border of our two-acre park – a Gaillardia, a hardy orange (with golf-ball sized fruit that smelled like warm honey), a hedge of pink Rosa “Fairy.” (Trying to save the garden, we claimed – and got some media attention for it – that Babe Ruth had planted the rose in his mother’s memory.)

I remember the people I learned to care about there. Joan specialized in daylilies and Elsa introduced me to Egyptian onions. I still make Melissa’s spicy chicken wings. Joe introduced me to a French author of racy fiction. Nat’s raspy voice rang with joy when his grandkids came by. We all helped the Culkins tend a pumpkin in its panty hose sling, until it was big enough to become Macauley’s Jack-o-lantern. (Macauley’s family lived half a block from the garden. He and his toddler siblings frolicked nude in the garden most summer days.)

For more than fifteen years our motley group – garment center workers, retirees, lawyers, social workers, brokers, teachers, a bus driver, students, an architect, a painter, an editor, a soprano (really a coloratura), and in the northeast corner the eccentric lady – helped one another grow food and flowers in our eighty little plots, and care for and share an appealing, clean, and safe neighborhood open space.

The same kind of thing is happening at the Morgan Spring Community Garden in Bennington, at the Pownal Community Garden off Center Street, and at the Lucien Hanks Community Garden in North Bennington.

People organize and attend work days. They share their food with others, care for a common green space, and help newbies understand this whole miracle-from-the-ground thing. And in the process, lives are enriched, as this miracle-in-the-ground thing is transformed into a miracle-in-the-heart thing – into the “community” in “community garden.”

But, as mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow, the sense of community starts with small things. First, you’ve got to sign up. Those wanting to join the Morgan Street Community Garden should contact Jen Krijnen at 384-5291; the Pownal Community Garden, Jordan Schell-Lambert at 733-7424; and the Lucien Hanks garden, Claude De Lucia, 442-4361. (Or visit the Master Gardeners table at the Walloomsac Farmers Market on Saturday, April 17th, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., to register on the spot. And also put on your calendar the March 20th market, where the Master Gardeners will be offering a lesson on starting seeds. You’ll be able to start some of your own to take home.)

In signing your garden registration form, you agree to keep your plot weeded and tended, volunteer for communal chores, follow all garden guidelines, and use organic practices. If you’re an experienced gardener, you’ll be asked if you’d be willing to share what you know with a new one. If you are a new gardener, you’ll be asked if you’d like such help. The fee per year at each garden is $20.

Then it will be time to start planning what to grow and how much of it. (We at BCCD would be glad to try to answer your questions and will even help you lay out and schedule plantings. Call us at 802 442-2275 or email us at bccd@sover.net.) And it will be time to ready yourself for a plunge into a new world, one full of surprises and satisfactions (and occasional disappointments) educational, horticultural, and emotional. You’re about to acquire a new place of the heart.

Shelly Stiles is the district manager of the Bennington County Conservation District, whose mission is promoting rural livelihoods and protecting natural resources in southwestern Vermont.

This column appeared in the Bennington Banner in March 2010, as one of the BCCD's Conservation Currents pieces, a bi-weekly feature written by BCCD board and staff members since August 2006.