2014-08-29 / Front Page

City’s community garden looks to spread its roots

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


Mary Linneman, one of about 60 city residents who tend plots at the Community Garden Collective on Sawyer Street, next to the city planning office, waters her veggies Tuesday evening. Mary Linneman, one of about 60 city residents who tend plots at the Community Garden Collective on Sawyer Street, next to the city planning office, waters her veggies Tuesday evening. SOUTH PORTAND — Under a crisp late-summer sky, nearly a dozen area residents, young and old, gathered to tend to their plants at the Community Garden Collective plots located next to the city planning office on Sawyer Street.

With smiles all around, they quickly convened Tuesday at three raised plots in one corner of the half-acre site. There they picked lettuce and beets, kale and carrots, eggplant, tomatoes and beans. Each item was carefully washed, weighed and packed on ice in waiting coolers.

On Wednesday morning, the coolers were delivered to the South Portland Food Cupboard on Thirlmere Avenue, a local food pantry that helps area residents without enough to eat.

“Last week, we fed 76 families,” said the Cupboard’s Executive Director Sybil Reimensnider. “We didn’t have enough of anything. It was like a mad house.”


Emily Renschler and daughter Josephine Scoll, age 4, harvest tomatoes Tuesday from the family’s 10-by-10 garden plot, located next to the city planning office on Sawyer Street. The Community Garden Collective site features 39 raised beds, three of which are dedicated to growing produce for the South Portland Food Cupboard. (Duke Harrington photo) Emily Renschler and daughter Josephine Scoll, age 4, harvest tomatoes Tuesday from the family’s 10-by-10 garden plot, located next to the city planning office on Sawyer Street. The Community Garden Collective site features 39 raised beds, three of which are dedicated to growing produce for the South Portland Food Cupboard. (Duke Harrington photo) With such need, the garden collective’s contribution, made under the auspices of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Office Harvest for Hunger program, comes as a real boon, said Reimensnider. In the three years since the garden collective was founded, it has provided nearly 3,000 pounds of fresh produce to the food cupboard from beds dedicated to the Harvest for Hunger program. Some of those who rent the 39 garden spots also contribute part of the total.


Rachel Berger, left, and Linda Skinner weigh produce collected Tuesday from the Community Garden Collective on Sawyer Street, as part of the Harvest for Hunger program, to be donated to the South Portland Food Cupboard. (Duke Harrington photo) Rachel Berger, left, and Linda Skinner weigh produce collected Tuesday from the Community Garden Collective on Sawyer Street, as part of the Harvest for Hunger program, to be donated to the South Portland Food Cupboard. (Duke Harrington photo) “Every bit helps and we feel very honored that we’ve been chosen to receive this,” Reimensnider said.

“What’s grown is stuff that everybody likes,” she said, before pausing and adding with a laugh, “Well, except kale. Nobody knows what to do with kale.”

With a large waiting list for the 10-foot by 10-foot garden plots, which rent for $35 per season – enough to pay the city water bill for irrigation – the collective is looking to spread its roots. At a recent city council workshop, collective members secured permission to expand the Sawyer Street site, and to begin the process of creating a second location on the city’s west end.

“The gardens have been a tremendous community asset and we really look forward to having a second one built, especially in the Red Bank neighborhood,” said City Manager Jim Gailey.

“I have full confidence that it will work out well there,” said Churchill Street resident Rachel Berger, a founding member of the collective. “People there are more low income and could use the food even more.”

According to another founding member, Crystal Goodrich, the garden collective was the brainchild of volunteers who helped with the South Portland Land Trust’s annual plant sale.

“There’s a community garden run by the city over in Hinckley Park,” said Goodrich, “but there’s a long waiting list, there’s no irrigation, and it’s become overgrown and shaded. We wanted to create something more modern and more accessible.”

The garden collective organized as a nonprofit under the fiscal sponsorship of the land trust, which arranged to split plant sale proceeds for two years. That and other fundraising brought in about $8,500 used to build the raised garden plots, on space leased from the city on what was once the playground of the former Hamlin Elementary School. Although the collective pays for its water connection, it did get a deal on the lease, at $1 per year for five years, which it is now looking to renew.

According to group spokesman Stephen Marks, the garden gives apartment dwellers in the city the chance to have a garden, as well as homeowners with too little land or too much shade, to garden on their own property.

“It’s really amazing how much food you can get out of one of these spaces,” said collective member Emily Renschler, while tending her spot with children William, 7, and Josephine, 4. “My parents grew up with gardening, but then it kind of was lost in my generation. I’m learning now how to garden and learning, now that I have children, just how fun and valuable it is.”

According to Marks, a self-described “geezer gardener” retired from a career as a sociology professor, the new Red Bank garden will be the product of a separate collective, possibly organized under the umbrella of the existing group, but run as its own entity. The first step, he said, will be for group members to canvass the Red Bank neighborhood, to raise interest in the garden, and to find residents willing to take a leadership role in securing its creation.

“We’re not looking to impose anything on anybody,” Marks said. “It has to come from the people in that neighborhood. Still, we’re interested in helping it get started because we feel that community gardens foster a sense of community identity and spirit. They often bring together people from a wide variety of backgrounds — age, race, culture, social class — so people who don’t even speak the same language can be working side by side on common goals.

“They’re also a great resource for families,” Marks said. “Gardening becomes a family activity and kids learn where food comes from and learn the value of growing their own food.

“And, of course, community gardens foster better nutrition,” Marks said. “The most affordable food at supermarkets is often the most processed and the least healthy. The gardens provide good food to low-income people. If every family grew just a little of their own food, we believe the world would be a much better place.”

“I think it would be a huge asset for my end of town,” said Collingwood Road resident Ashley Jenson. “I don’t think participation would be an issue. I think the neighborhood would really come together.”

Rick Towle, director of parks and recreation, said his department is working with Home Properties LLC, owners of land behind the Red Bank Community Center, to use land off MacArthur Circle for a new community garden.

“It would need different topography than it has today,” he said. “It would need to be re-graded and reworked, but it would work well with what we were planning to do in that area anyway.”

“Well, I for one could not pick out a better location within the community than this site,” said Councilor Tom Blake.

Even by planting the seeds of an idea now, a community garden for Red Bank probably will not sprout in time for next year’s growing season, Marks said. Still, it does seem that the city council is on board to help make it happen. Once it does grow, however, it will copy the current Hamlin School site, he said, with 10 percent of its plots dedicated to the Harvest for Hunger program.

“We’ve made some great strides in the right direction in that community in recent years,” said Mayor Jerry Jalbert. “A lot of people don’t even know that (community center) facility is even there. It’s a diverse site with something there for everybody. I’d like to have this be a part of that too.

“We’re going to have this on a future council agenda to have the council do something and actually spend a little bit of money to make this work,” he said.

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