May 15, 2018

The Little Garden That Could

Medford, in the upper left corner
of this map, is just five miles
from Boston's Financial District.
The garden is located in that
first 'e' in Medford.

Three years ago, Joan Parker was feeling frustrated.  A long-time volunteer at a church-run food cupboard in Medford, Massachusetts, each week she parceled out canned and packaged foods to the mostly Haitian immigrants served by the charity.  While what she provided helped needy families stretch meager resources, Joan felt she should be doing more.

It wasn’t that Joan didn’t know how to grow vegetables.  As a Master Gardener, Joan helped maintain a 6,000-square-foot vegetable plot at the Elm Bank headquarters of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  Most of the output of that garden made its way to food banks in towns adjacent to Wellesley, where Mass Hort is located.  Joan began to wonder if it might it be possible to create such a garden in Medford, a city just a few miles north of Boston’s Financial District?

Joan Parker
At the Mass Hort garden, Joan worked alongside Susan Hammond.  (I should add at this juncture I have known Susan for the better part of a decade.  Susan was Betty’s ‘protégé’ and the person to whom she handed off responsibility for that garden when Betty’s growing Garden Club Federation responsibilities took her in a new direction.)

Joan and Susan talked about the potential challenges of an urban, food-cupboard-oriented garden.  As it turned out, changes in the focus and direction of the Mass Hort garden made that project less attractive to the volunteers who worked there.  The Medford project seemed like a more freewheeling ‘re-boot’ for gardeners looking for a challenge.

The garden hugs one side
of the church and several
sites around the Rectory
Joan and Susan set about to design a model garden smack in the center of Medford.  Their sponsor was the Unitarian Church of Medford, a venerable institution that also sponsored the food cupboard where Joan volunteered.   Initial plans were for a very low budget garden, funded by the volunteers, using the existing soil and adding compost.  The site would be the (mostly) sunny lawn of the church rectory.  Master Gardener volunteers would run the garden.  A few hundred dollars seemed more than adequate to get the garden up and running, buy seeds, all those sorts of things, and a drip irrigation system could wait for a while.

Because the soil contains high levels
of lead, all planting is in raised beds.
That's Susan Hammond at right.
Which was when reality reared its ugly head.  The first problem was the site.  The grass lawn turned out to be integral to the church’s ministry. Groups met there and services were held there.  Joan and Susan regrouped.  They proposed a dispersed garden utilizing bits and pieces of church property.  ‘Terrific!’ was the response.  Soil tests were performed and plans were made to begin plowing up the ground to start the garden.

Then, those soil tests came back.  The soil contained toxic levels of lead.  All that lead paint and lead from other sources had left the ground utterly unsuitable for the growing of anything planned for human consumption.

To ensure no bed lies
fallow, these cups hold
spaces where a squash
crop will be planted next
OK, they concluded, we’ll do taller raised beds.  On further investigation, the raised beds would need to be kept completely apart from the soil underneath them.  OK, they thought, double-height raised beds with impermeable barriers between the beds and the soil. 

There went the budget. However, there was still a need for this garden, so the food pantry applied for and received a $1,000 grant from the Massachusetts Master Gardener Association.

In the meantime, other Master Gardeners were eager to start on the project.  They surveyed food cupboard recipients and got input on what kinds of fresh vegetables would be most welcome.  A request for exotic seeds went to Master Gardener Deb Haley, who investigated and sourced Haitian varieties.  Master Gardener Gretel Anspach provided access to large quantities of onions and leeks including specialty cooking onions.

This weekend, I finally got to see the garden I’ve heard about for three years.  The Master Gardeners opened it for visitors, and I was part of a tour group led by Susan Hammond. 

The ollas buried in these 'bag beds'
provide continuous moisture to
the vegetables growing there.
The garden is a small masterpiece.  It hugs one side of the church with raised beds for vegetables and an in-ground perennial garden.  Across the street at the rectory, three sets of distinct vegetable beds ring that grass lawn while leaving the center available for church functions.  All the tricks of the trade are used to coax the maximum production of vegetables from the site, including succession planting and space holders for second crops even as the first round are little more than seedlings.  Ollas, ceramic jugs embedded in the soil, provide continuous moisture because the drip irrigation system can be used only when volunteers are present (the faucet upon which the drip system is dependent has an unfortunate leak).

These handful of beds, with the help of
ten volunteers, delivers a bounty
of fresh produce every week.
This year’s first distribution of vegetables – pea greens – will be made in mid-May.  Thereafter, every week, a growing cascade of Haitian favorites comes to the food cupboard, with ten volunteers working the garden on a regular schedule.  The last distribution coincides with Thanksgiving, when the last of the autumn cornucopia is handed out.

It is an urban success story; proof that, with perseverance and resources, gardeners can overcome almost any obstacle.  It isn’t ‘The Little Garden That Could’; it’s The Little Garden That Does.

May 7, 2018

Stewards of the Land

The town I live in, Medfield, had several incarnations before it was a suburb of Boston. It was, however briefly, the straw hat capital of the world. It was an artists’ colony. It played a small but pivotal role in the King Philip War. Mostly, though, until the 20th Century, Medfield was a farming community.

You can see Pine Street in this 1858
map of Medfield.  What would become
our home is the orange dot. Double-
click for a full-page image.
The winding road on which I now live can be seen on maps dating back well into the 19th Century.  An ‘aerial view’ of the town from 1888 shows farm fields and a swamp.  Sometime before 1940, a modest single-family home rose on the site and two families raised children in it.  Then, about 25 years ago, it became home to an invalid.  The acre-and-a-half around the house reverted to pines and, unfortunately, opportunistic invasive species.

The front part of the property circa
2014.  Somewhere under there was
a house and sterile land
When Betty and I saw the property for the first time in April 2014, the first thing we noticed was a 50-foot-long sweep of black swallowwort; one of the nastiest introductions into New England of the past decade.  Several specimens of euonymous alatus – burning bush – towered more than ten feet and no less noxious offspring were all over the property, including the wetlands that comprised the back two-thirds of the parcel.

My strongest memory of that first walkaround, though, was the complete absence of sound.  There were no birds, no frogs, nothing.  The land had gone sterile.

We designed a house to respect
the wetlands behind us
Last month we began our fourth year as stewards of that acre and a half we now call home.  In some ways we’ve accomplished a lot; in others, we have so far to go.

Beginning in September 2014, we removed some 40 pines.  All were over 60 feet in height with growth only at their very tips.  The invasive plants and shrubs were ripped out of the ground. Except for a few remaining maples, oaks, and pines, we were left with a blank slate upon which to create a house and landscape. 

Pulling up the trees also
pulled up tons of rock
The following spring we began planting a dozen specimen trees – all natives – and, except for a concolor fir, all flowering.  We added native shrubs (itea, fothergilla, high-bush blueberry), then ground covers (ferns, wild strawberries, and heuchera).  We also allowed in a few ‘friendly aliens’ such as hosta and bulbs.  We continued the planting last year, adding still more trees, shrubs, and too many perennials to keep count.

Has it made a difference?  An inch and a half of rain fell the other day.  I went out after dark to switch over our gutters from filling rain barrels to flowing rainwater into underground pipes that feed directly into the wetlands.  In the process, I frightened a frog (or toad) that had to be at least three inches in length.  Amphibians have re-colonized our land.

We planted all native trees and shrubs
Two years ago we put out hummingbird feeders and were promptly rewarded with at least two pair of rubythroats.  That winter, we added seed and suet feeders to let overwintering and migrating birds know they were welcome.  Yesterday morning, we counted at least a dozen distinct species – all nesting pairs – at our feeders.  The birds are back with a vengeance, including a hawk who surveys his or her hunting ground from the top of one of the remaining pines.

Are we finished planting?  Not by a long shot.  Two weeks ago we made the trek out to New England Wild Flower Society’s Nasami Farms nursery in Whatley to inspect their new offerings and returned home with a car full of ground covers and yet another shrub.

The once-sterile plot of land now is now bio-diverse and
home to all manner of wildlife... including a hawk
We are stewards of our little chunk of land. The frogs and birds were here long before us.  They have an equal right to enjoy this little acre and a half.  Admittedly, we deter the animals we consider pests (deer, turkeys) but welcome all others. 

We occasionally even get unexpected help.  A three-foot-long garter snake, whom for whatever reason I promptly named ‘Herbert’, took up residence near the two raised-bed vegetable gardens at the front of our property.  It was a sufficient presence that Betty always made me check the area to ensure Herbert was elsewhere before she would work those plots. 

Last fall, the two boys across the street brought exciting news:  right as they were playing outside, our resident hawk swooped down from his aerie and grabbed Herbert.  He was last seen wiggling helplessly, 50 feet in the air, as the hawk sought out an appropriate luncheon spot.