“I’m glad to be here — and lucky,” Walter said as he busily screened compost into a wheelbarrow. “My father did gardening for a living. He worked on estates; I work on community.”
Walter, who is 91 years old (and who declined to give his last name), was one of hundreds of gardeners who came out to clean and prepare garden beds during the second Citywide Open Garden Day. The event took place Saturday at 17 New Haven Land Trust community gardens across the city.
With almost 50 established gardens that seem hidden in plain sight, the not-for-profit group sought also to build awareness of its mission “to engage people in stewardship and cultivation of the land for a healthier community and environment.”
New Haven Land Trust Executive Director Justin Elicker joined gardeners at Chapelseed, one of the older community gardens, located on Chapel Street. He said the Land Trust owns two garden lots outright and leases 22 others from the city. The remaining gardens are made available through informal agreements with the parks department, city schools and other organizations.
Joining Elicker at Chapelseed to help in the construction of a “hoop house,” a kit-constructed green house, was Emily Sloss, gardening manager for the Land Trust and Downtown New Haven Alder Alberta Witherspoon, who has been gardening at Chapelseed for 12 years. Sloss explained that the hoop house, when completed, requires no electricity. Its passive solar capacity will be a great improvement in enabling and extending the growing season.
As Elicker drilled into heavy-gauge metal supports, Eileen O’Donnell, 72, used a power drill to make adjustments in the wood-plank compost bin at the rear of the garden lot. Roots from a nearby maple tree had infiltrated the bin due to an opening at the bottom of the bin wall. O’Donnell was having none of it and soon made the adjustment, shifting the bin wall over a concrete foundation to foil the tree’s invasive root system. O’Donnell said she has been gardening at Chapelseed for 18 years: “My yard is too shady to grow vegetables. This is the first place I’ve really tried to grow vegetables” she said.
Walter, who was getting ready to plant lettuce and would soon be planting his Dahlia tubers, offered sage gardening advice: “Once the dill comes up, you know there isn’t going to be anymore frost. It’s important to keep the soil healthy — and you don’t need chemicals to do it. Anytime someone has cow or horse manure to give, we’ll go get it,” he said.
Until this year, the MLK Peace Garden at 24 Adeline St. had been underutilized. On Saturday 14 refugee families showed up to begin work on their raised-bed plots or to begin constructing them through a partnership between IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services) and the New Haven Land Trust.
Amanda Bisset, a social service worker who runs a variety of wellness programs at the agency, said it was a long-time dream to start a refugee garden project. Her wish was made possible through a private donation. Though it was her first time managing a garden project, Bisset received support from other Iris workers and garden manager Sloss, who had dropped off a load of planks and gave instructions on building the raised beds.
Gardeners at the site, representing Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan and Guinea, were excited to begin their family gardens.
Some broke new ground, while others constructed the raised beds.
“It’s inspiring to see people from different backgrounds working on a common project,” Elicker said. “Gardening breaks down barriers. You start with gardening techniques and get to talk and learn things from others.”
Not far from the MLK Garden, neighbors were busy at the Truman Street Community Garden. Coordinator Leslie Radcliffe, who has been managing the space for five years, was surrounded by neighborhood children who volunteered with the garden clean-up.
The garden boasts a small grove of fruit tree saplings provided by the Land Trust with other trees, shrubs and perennials provided by Urban Resources Initiative. It is a kid-friendly location where local families often have gatherings. Radcliffe said that her group is trying to partner with city agencies so that the overflow of bumper crops can be distributed where needed.
At one corner of the busy lot, nearby homeowners Jose Layedra and Anthony Wells, a 21-year veteran of the New Haven Fire Department, were bagging leaves and debris that had accumulated during the previous season. “This is my neighborhood,” said Wells. “When I’m not at work, I’m usually here.”
The New Haven Land Trust website summarizes many of the benefits to individuals as well as communities: “Greening our urban areas puts vacant lots to productive use. Community gardening provides neighbors with exercise, stress relief, a sense of well being, and opportunities for family time and learning new skills. Best of all, neighbors enjoy delicious homegrown bounty.”
Donations to help support the community gardens program can be made at the Land Trust website.