“A garden is such an inherently good thing,” mused Valerie Linet, the chair of the steering committee for the Shandaken Community Gardens (SCG). “It’s got the potential for common ground.”
The group’s 26 garden plots were still dreaming in the sun this week, alongside the Phoenicia Elementary School on Route 214, but the gardening action will soon begin. As members gear up for an April 20 work day and the April 27 groundbreaking for SCG’s second growing season, there are currently five ten-by-ten-foot plots up for grabs.
Linet, a clinical social worker and writer, lives in Boiceville, not Shandaken, and has a garden at her house, so she doesn’t even have a plot at SCG. Why, then, has she embraced the project with such gusto?
“I had lived at the Zen Mountain Monastery, and I was the gardener there,” she explained. “When I left, I was in withdrawal — it was a special way to grow food, with so many hands involved. I heard Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) was supporting community gardens.”
She called Phoenicia resident Alma Rodriguez, who was working with CCE’s Creating Healthy Places initiative and was searching for a place for a garden in Shandaken. Rodriguez promptly asked Linet to chair the steering committee for SCG, although, said Linet, “I didn’t know what a steering committee was, or a chairperson.”
Involving kids in growing food is seen as a step in addressing childhood obesity, one of the goals of Creating Healthy Places, so the Phoenicia Elementary School, with its sweeping, sun-drenched, highly visible lawn, seemed like a logical site for the community garden. “The board of education has been so easy to work with,” said Linet. All along the way, support from the surrounding community has come when it’s been most needed.
The hard-working committee first met in March of 2012 and dreamed of starting the garden that spring. In fact, the process took another year, but Linet feels that they were in better shape to sustain the project by last April. One obstacle was the need for liability insurance and the lack of money to pay for it. Then Kathy Nolan of Catskill Mountainkeeper came onto the steering committee, enabling SCG to obtain insurance under the umbrella of the larger organization.
Last spring, after laying out the garden, putting in a toolshed on long-term loan from Farmer Jones Barns, and raising an eight-foot deer fence, the first members to set up their plots paid for topsoil, compost, and wooden planks to frame the raised beds. One gentleman actually hand-dug his garden, yielding a heap of rocks that rose halfway to the top of the fence. Then an uncle of one of the members donated money to buy materials for several subsequent plots.
For the coming season — now that the heavy work is done — each plot will cost $25, with soil, compost, and boards provided. New members are being asked to pay a one-time $25 infrastructure fee. Scholarships are available for those who can’t afford the cost.
“Feeding people is important to me,” said Linet. “So is food security. There are a lot of people who don’t have enough money to buy the food they need. No matter what happens to someone’s personal situation, if they know how to grow food, one basic need is met.”
This year, she expects that growers with excess food will be donating to the Reservoir Food Pantry, recently established in the Town of Olive. Gardeners are also invited to plant an extra row in one of the “Ed Beds,” a few plots reserved for educational purposes. Members can use these beds to experiment with gardening methods, and SCG has plans for educational programs for the public, including kids. Last year, one of the Ed Beds was a “Three Sisters” garden, planted with the traditional Native American crops of corn, beans, and squash.
Amongst the beds is a community circle, outlined with a stone path and adorned with benches built by one of the members. “We wanted a gathering place,” said Linet, “for a balance of learning, sharing, festivity. We had an ‘Arts in the Garden’ day in September, with music and improvisational dance, and I read my essay on muskmelons. Non-members came too.”
After all, group activities, both work and play, are the essence of a community garden. Linet added, “I’m getting to know my neighbors, and I’m helping to bring people together over something good. I’m investing in where I live in a way that’s beautiful.”
For more information on Shandaken Community Gardens, or to apply for one of the five available plots, see shandakencommunitygardens.org/ or call (845) 202-1117. A “Spring Into Action” work day will be held on April 20, as members and visitors get the garden ready for the growing season. Plots will be assigned to members by lottery on April 27, when gardeners may break ground. Volunteers are always welcome to help out, and donations from the community are gratefully accepted.