A month ago, Eneida Martinez didn’t know you could even grow vegetables in old contaminated New Haven.
She does now, big time, because the winter squash she worked on looks great and the invasive mugwort that used to deface the garden fence is all gone.
Result: Her work is helping to revitalize not only a garden in the North Hill area near the Yale-New Haven Hospital, but also the community around it.
Thursday evening the New Haven Land Trust (NHLT), which helps sustain the Davenport Children’s Garden on city-owned land at the corner of Ward Street, threw a party complete with crispy kale chips, collard greens, lots of fresh vegetables and chocolate chip cookies, to celebrate the work of Martinez and the brother-sister duo of Chrystal and Chris Dickey.
The three young people, who worked at Davenport and on a score of the trust’s 50 citywide sites, came on board at the beginning of July through the city’s Youth at Work program.
It’s the first year of the land trust’s youth program. “We are interested in growing it,” said Executive Director Justin Elicker.
No wonder. Since the beginning of the month, when the young people came on board for the five-week program, they have been working not only at the 10-year-old Davenport Children’s Garden but at sites in Newhallville, Dixwell, Fair Haven, and on the East Shore, said Kate Lichti, who coordinated their work.
They did labor-intensive weeding, spreading mulch, and going after invasives. In the case of the Davenport garden, Chris Dickey said, the invasive mugwort was growing high on the fences on two sides of the garden. Now the mugwort’s gone. In its place Eneida proudly showed the composting box made of pallets repurposed from the Connecticut Mental Health Center.
As a result of the young people’s muscle and dedication, from the Ward Street side passersby can now see the waving leaves of cabbage, beans, Hungarian hot peppers, tomatoes, the tall fronds of the corn, and the leaves of calaloo.
That’s a Caribbean plant that tastes like spinach, said Lena Largie (pictured), the most accomplished gardener from the neighborhood. She lives on Sylvan Avenue and has been tending the raised boxes for nearly six years.
Eneida said the experience has opened her eyes to the world of gardening. Now she and her mom have their own garden. Chrystal said her favorite aspect of the work is helping elderly people with more back-breaking aspects of gardening such as conquering resistant weeds.
Her brother said his inspiration is a 93-year-old deaf woman who came out every day to garden.
When the young people finished their brief but funny and poignant speeches, Lichti added that making beautiful spaces and gardens isn’t “just about healthy food but our neighborhoods, caring for the land and people.”
Lead and Asthma Program
That was the origin of the garden according to Chris Prokop (pictured), a clinical social worker at the Yale-New Haven Hospital Lead and Healthy Homes program, situated in an attractive wooden house kitty corner from the garden.
Ten years ago Prokop contacted the city, which put him in touch with the land trust. A concrete pathway was put in what was an old rundown, abandoned city-owned lot. In the evolving space Prokop ran an after-school program. The space was gradually used also for community events, and people pitched in maintaining the garden beds.
Neighbors like 78-year-old Mattie Stevenson (pictured with J.T. Rodriguez) came on board not only as gardeners but as teachers of the value of gardening to little kids, lessons that go beyond working with the plants and growing food.
“When we’re working the soil, we’re silent,” she demonstrated to 10-year-old J.T. Rodriguez. Gardening is a healing process, she explained. She used her work in the garden to maintain her now 34 years of survival from two serious bouts of cancer.
“I teach them how to plant and to harvest and how to meditate in the soil,” she said.
The Truman School student called keeping silent a strange thing to do while gardening. Still, he was up for it. He demonstrated later when he helped Chrystal plant the bed of petunias, geraniums, veronica austriaca, and other flowers along the vegetable garden’s border.
For many years the garden space was used at least twice a week by Prokop and the families he worked with. Kids who are now in their 20s sometimes come up to him and tell them the work they did on the garden in years gone by provided focus, kept them off the streets.
Although the garden has never been defunct, the invasives were making a serious attack this summer. That is why Chris, Chrystal, and Eneida were deployed there.
On Thursday it looked serene and active at the same time, with the beds of growing vegetables not lined up in geometric rows, but more homey and helter-skelter—beautifully green, weeded, and well maintained.
After speeches and lunch, the three young people led the kids and the older folks in planting the flower bed as well as another large bed of Heritage Raspberry bushes.
In addition to food, local festivals, and focused activity for neighborhood kids, “hospital folks walk down here [to the garden] just to get some peace,” Prokop added.
The Davenport Children’s Garden is operated by the land trust on a five-year lease with the city, most recently renewed in May 2013.