A Gardening Community -August 2009

A visit to the Nantucket Community Garden

by: Hilary Newell

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

If it’s Sunday morning, and if the weather is even moderately acceptable for working outdoors, you will find John and Judy Lochtefeld at the Nantucket Community Garden. The owners of three plots at this very special locale, the Lochtefelds are avid vegetable gardeners with high hopes for bushels of tomatoes, pecks of peas and pounds of potatoes. Oh, and lots of arugula.

I took a ride out Hummock Pond Road to see the community garden for the first time a few weeks ago. It seemed like a mythical spot to me, until I set foot there and found a real community, and plenty of real gardens, each unique in look and purpose. Similar only in size, these 20-by-20-foot plots are neatly laid out on a lot that seems to be about three-quarters of an acre. Complete with a greenhouse, a large compost heap and 40 patches of garden, this community abounds with energy. Upon arrival, I was greeted with a wonderful organic smell, a welcome sign that planting and fertilizing were taking place. In the parking lot, there is a sign alerting members to updates regarding the current month’s clean-up: removing trash, organizing equipment, coiling hoses, mowing the paths near your plot, and reminding members that there is no dump service, so please take your non-compostable trash directly to the landfill.

Mingled in with the list of chores on the white board, there are scribbles, evidence of a younger generation of gardeners helping out. It all sounds pretty reasonable to do your chores in order to help keep the area neat. Here’s the miracle … it gets done and the common areas stay tidy.

There are a few rules in the garden. All growing is to be done organically: no commercial fertilizer, no pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. Everyone is expected to maintain their plots and be respectful of others’ space. This includes not playing loud music while others are working. Filching from other gardens is strictly prohibited. Excess produce is not to be sold, but members sometimes trade veggies, and certainly friends of gardeners might reap the benefits of planting too much zucchini.

In Great Britain, they are called “allotment gardens,” and apparently, each council in England and Wales (except for inner London) must provide an allotment for anyone who is interested. The purpose is to help citizens share knowledge and expertise and to collect seeds and plant varieties that are endangered. Some allotments are even given so people can raise poultry. The existence of some sort of community or shared garden is suggested by the findings at archaeological digs from ancient times, where evidence exists for shared garden space in many cities. Preserving the skills of gardening and agriculture is a central element to any community garden, and critical to the survival of a culture. In America, community gardens have sprung up in inner cities, on vacant lots and school grounds, gaining much popularity during World War I and World War II. Individuals and groups planted Victory Gardens as a means to keep themselves fed during the lean times that existed then. Fresh food was difficult to obtain, so growing your own was one way to be sure to have enough to eat. It also provided a means of barter for other goods. During the Great Depression, the WPA provided public land to those in need, utilizing over 5,000 acres in New York City alone. Where have all those gardens gone? According to an article in a recent issue of Organic Gardening, approximately one million people belong to an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 community gardens in the United States today. The USDA has announced a goal of having a community garden at every one of its facilities around the world.

The social and economic benefits of community gardens are well documented, with the top benefits being improved nutrition and increased exercise. An inner-city garden gives residents a piece of land that they can (at least temporarily) call their own, and allows them a sense of pride that is otherwise not available. Not-for-profit groups like The National Gardening Association, AmeriCorps, anti-hunger groups and shelters often help provide funding for equipment and volunteer labor to start and maintain these gardens.

The Nantucket Community Garden has been in existence for about 20 years. From the beginning, Frannie Pease has leased the lot to the members who pay a yearly fee to work their 20-by-20 plots of earth. Some members have a single plot, others, like the Lochtefelds, work up to three plots at once.

Each gardener has his or her own particular gardening style, and choice of plants, though nearly everyone grows vegetables. Each plot is as unique as its owner. Some have short woven fences, some use chicken wire or Tenax fencing, and a few brave souls don’t have any protection from the animals at all. Deer don’t seem to be a problem, even with the proximity of some wild areas nearby. One side is bordered by an electric fence designed to keep certain farm animals in their place, though rabbits were in attendance each time I visited. Tomatoes, squash and peppers are in abundance. Potatoes, peas and herbs are pretty common, too. Companion planting is applied in a few garden plots. Marigolds are planted near vegetables to repel certain nematodes, and there’s lots of borage to be seen. A natural attractor of bees and other pollinators, borage also adds nutrients to the soil and it resists pests. The flowers are edible, too.

So why go all the way to a community garden, instead of having a garden in your back yard? Again, the reasons are as varied as the members themselves. One member recalled that when he first came to the island, he lived on a boat. Finding a place in the community garden gave him a chance to be grounded, and begin to make a connection with the land here. He shared some stories about his early gardens, noting that on many days, he could be found there with his camping stove, cooking rice or noodles and adding his freshly-picked vegetables. Lunch just doesn’t get any fresher than that. My friend Linda (who was the inspiration for this article) doesn’t own a home here, and has moved many times in the last 14 years that she’s been a member. This garden has allowed her to put down roots, and have a consistent place to garden. Often, her rentals have had very small yards, and short-term leases don’t leave enough time to get a garden established. In the community garden, she can experiment with different plants, and still has room to grow all the tomatoes, peppers and strawberries she wants. On my first visit, her double plot was in the beginning stages of preparation, and she was busy hoeing in her bare feet. One week later, all the weeds were gone, and her veggies were all planted neatly with irrigation hoses snaking through the whole plot. Linda starts her seeds in her home and can keep an eye on them until they are ready to go in the ground. An aged chair sits just inside the gate as a reminder to take a little break now and then. Sit back and watch the plants grow. Though with her three children, I don’t imagine that much sitting goes on there. Her husband is also an active member of the garden, providing plumbing help and the use of some large equipment.

In a patch that is far from the road, Francisco Deras has a plot where he grows only three types of vegetables: squash, peppers and tomatoes. They are given lots of room and by summer’s end he will have bushels of produce. Francisco is a custodian in the school system, and his wife works in the kitchen there. Part of her daily routine is to go to the community garden every day after school to check on the plants. They’ve lived here for 22 years and been members of the garden for 16.

Right around the compost pile from Francisco is Laura Hess’ family garden. Originally part of the greenhouse structure, this little plot is well protected from the elements, sheltered by the greenhouse on one side, and by an old foundation on the other. An espaliered fruit tree and other cast-offs from her previous landscaping business are permanent pieces of her garden. Tomatoes, zucchini, beans, potatoes and herbs all benefit from the generous application of lobster compost she puts on each year. One child slept in his car seat nearby, while their other child patiently helped her dad with some other chores. There is an enthusiastic family raising this garden. They will eat what they can, and preserve the rest to take with them to Oregon for the winter.

John and Judy Lochtefeld’s plots have an eclectic collection of plants. Two types of peas, potatoes, tomatoes, turnips (or were they parsnips?) peppers, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, herbs and lots of arugula are all growing in neat rows. Though it is riddled with flea-beetle holes, Judy said the arugula still tastes delicious, and they eat it frequently. They had already eaten several salads of spinach and the crop had begun to bolt. She had just finished picking a batch of peas, and she noticed a problem with the sugar snaps. It looked like cut worms had been working high up on the plants, and the tops had fallen over. My guess is that she will find someone else in the community who has had the same problem, and find a solution. Judy’s motive for gardening here is simply that it gets her “out of the city and into the country.” John is merely tremendously grateful for the opportunity to be part of the neighborhood. He considers it a gift in their lives.

There is good camaraderie and sharing of information at the garden. Everyone has his or her special techniques for growing. Some plots look very much like a farmer’s field with straight rows. Others have decorative winding raised beds, tee-pee structures for growing pole beans, sculptures, shells, pathways and furniture. Some plants are carefully planted on volcanic-like mounds, other folks are less finicky and just plop everything down right at soil level. Several people use row covers to keep the flea beetles from eating their baby greens, or to give their cabbages and Brussels sprouts a head start, particularly during cool springs like this year. One grower pulled up in his pick-up truck and proceeded to push a large tarp full of eelgrass off the back. He was waiting for his friend who was going to rinse it and spread it on his plot. I had heard of using eel grass as a winter mulch, but not as a summer mulch. In the winter, there is no need to rinse the salt off, as it washes down through the soil before new plants are planted in the spring. In the summer though, if the salt doesn’t get washed off, it can disrupt the chemical balance in the soil. Hmmm, I thought, I can really learn some things from these people.

But in addition to the gardening tips I picked up, and the very interesting people I met, possibly the most inspirational moment I had while visiting was when a young boy ran up to us with a bag yelling “Look at all the strawberries I got.” He and his mother had stopped by to see if they were ready and his excitement at the idea of taking them home to eat was infectious. There are plenty of children who believe that milk comes from plastic bottles in the store, and vegetables come from the produce section. Knowing that children are learning that vegetables come from the ground, and that people have to work to grow them is very satisfying. I wished right then that I could have a plot there, but alas, after years of having empty spots, there is now a waiting list. And if you want to get on that list, you’d better go out there and start making friends with the gardeners who are there. The patches sometimes stay in the family after a member passes away, making them even more sought-after. The community spirit is alive at the community garden, and I feel lucky to have shared in it briefly.

Hilary Newell is the greenhouse production manager at Bartlett’s Farm and compiles “The Farm Dirt” each week.

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