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.

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