Community gardens feed body and soul
There's an apple tree-free Garden of Edin flourishing in Edinboro, a winter-hardy fig orchard thriving in Little Italy, and Syrian eggplants sprouting near German Street.
Those are some of the delights I discovered at several community gardens and farms in the Erie area.
At Garden of Edin, a banner bears this quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer, an environmental author and biologist: "A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence."
It's an apt quote for Garden of Edin, which is sponsored by First United Presbyterian Church in Edinboro, supported by grants from the Lake Erie Presbytery's Congregational Life Committee, bolstered by donations from the church's various organizations and local individuals, and nurtured by all ages, including preschoolers, scouting troops, teens in placement at Hermitage House Youth Services, university students, and senior citizens.
Elsewhere in Erie, community gardens are also fostering growth beyond the bounty of fruits and vegetables. At gardens organized by the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network (SSJNN), teens are learning about nature and healthy eating as they develop job skills. At three fledgling farms overseen by the Erie Field Office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, New Americans are discovering how to adapt farming skills from their native countries to agriculture here. Eventually, they may choose to make farming their full-time profession, helping to stem the loss of family farms.
"Edin" is pronounced like the Biblical paradise, but the puckish name also plays off its location in Edinboro, at Route 6N, next to the church. "The name came from the young mind of an 18-year-old daughter of the Garden Leadership Team," said Heather Zimmerman, a botanist with specialties in crops and soil science who is the garden's volunteer manager.
In exchange for a $10 fee, each gardener gets one four-by-eight-foot bed, with another one-by-six-foot bed bordering the fencing for plants that climb up trellises. Each bed reflects the gardener's personality, Zimmerman said. Some plots are tidy; others are not. There's red romaine lettuce and green Swiss chard, cherry tomatoes and regular tomatoes, bush beans and beets, cabbages and carrots, broccoli and borage (a good pollinator), sunflowers, and herbs.
Googly-eyed decorative frogs peek out of one bed, while others display colorful "scare tape," either metallic strips sold at garden-supply stores or versions fashioned from old pom-poms, to frighten away crows
Begun with 20 plots in 2015, the garden has doubled to 40 beds. There's also a ramp and some raised beds to accommodate those who use wheelchairs or have trouble crouching down. You don't have to be a member of First United Presbyterian to join; the garden is open to all, but beds are quickly snapped up during sign-ups in February.
Produce from four "tithe beds" — one tended by Edinboro Presbyterian, two by Edinboro United Methodist Church, and another by Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church — is donated weekly to the Edinboro Food Pantry at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Each individual gardener is welcome to donate but that's not a requirement, because some gardeners rely on their bounty to ease food insecurity. So far this year, the garden has given 78 pounds of produce for the food bank, with big harvests yet to come. And there are still fall plantings to be made, Zimmerman said.
She is a strong advocate for the square-foot gardening method developed in the 1980s by the late Mel Bartholomew, who outlined precise measurements to make the most of gardening beds. But the variety of plants grown is the individual gardener's choice (illegal or invasive plants are not allowed).
Gardeners start some plants from seeds (and some free seeds are provided), but others must be transplanted as seedlings because of our region's short growing season.
After a farmer donated 10 acres of property to the church, the field lay barren for years because it lacked good soil. The Garden of Edin solved that problem by supplying the soil, a combination of peat moss, compost and perlite. Art, the church's good-natured handyman, pumps water from the church well to plastic barrels, which also collect rain water. The garden also has tools and watering cans. And gardeners also rest easy because the fencing keeps pesky deer away.
Zimmerman stresses the benefits of "community" at community gardens. "When you garden in your backyard, it's just you, a solitary activity," she said. "In a community garden, you can be up here in the quiet of the morning or in the evening. You're meeting people, asking questions. If you are a veteran (gardener), you can offer advice. Friendships are made. Deep discussions are had up here — some sad, some joyful."
That eagerness to share tips was evident when Debbie Bright and Susan Egli, volunteers from the Albion Area Community Garden, at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, dropped by to learn more about Garden of Edin's success in keeping participants active and engaged. Rules on deadlines for planting gardens, composting waste, maintaining beds with weekly visits and regular weeding, and preparing beds for winter help to keep the operation running smoothly.
Garden of Edin members benefit from Zimmerman's experience as an educator at Asbury Woods Nature Center and later at Goodell Gardens. Originally from Bethlehem, Pa., Zimmerman, now retired, and her husband Brian, an Edinboro geology professor, came to Edinboro after their graduate studies. She acknowledges that there's always room for growth for a dedicated gardener. "This year I'm growing lima beans for the first time," she said, then added with a laugh, "I hate lima beans!"
Nurturing new skills is also key to other community garden programs.
The SSJNN has eight gardens on Erie's west and east sides, including its urban farm, which recently received zoning approval to build a greenhouse in the 400 block of West 19th Street, where a blighted house once stood. The Namaste Garden on Sassafras Street is tended by members of the Bhutanese and Nepalese community, while the International Flavors Garden in the 300 block of West 18th Street, which uses beds similar to those at the Garden of Edin, attracts a melting pot of neighborhood gardeners.
A new fig tree orchard, in a lot to the east of St. Paul Catholic Church at West 16th and Wallace streets, was started in response to requests from longtime residents of Little Italy, including Mike DeDad and Ron DiVecchio, said Gretchen Gallagher Durney, neighborhood manager for the SSJNN. The figs are ripening and should be ready soon for sale at the SSJNN Little Italy Farmers Market, 331 W. 18th St., she said.
The SSJNN employs 10 teens, ages 14 to 16, who work at the urban farm and do maintenance, such as composting, in the areas around the community gardens (gardeners themselves are responsible for their own beds).
Teens learn first-job basics, including how to interview and where to apply for a work permit, according to Durney. At the Farmers Market, which runs on Mondays from 3 to 6 p.m. from late June through September, they hone their customer service skills as they greet shoppers and sell vegetables, fruits, and flowers from the farm. "A lot come out of their shells," said Durney. Produce is also sold to local restaurants, such as Give a Crepe.
The teens also are introduced to healthy new foods, including herbs such as sorrel and stevia, and they have fun, such as developing a friendly competition to see how much fire their taste buds can endure from hot peppers.
Durney learns new things on the job as well. For instance, she was surprised when a Congolese family harvested sweet potato vines from their garden, to be sautéed and eaten; nothing goes to waste.
An added benefit of urban community gardening programs is that they return vacant lots to productive use, although not every empty lot is a candidate for gardening. The SSJNN has transformed vacant property on West 19th Street into Three Sisters Park, but it's not suitable for edible gardening, because it was the site of a boiler plant at one time.
The SSJNN also has community gardens on Erie's east side, complementing the work being done by the Erie Field Office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants at the International Institute, under the umbrella name Flagship Farms.
There's a community garden across from the International Institute, near East 26th and Ash streets, but the program also has three small commercial farms near East 22nd and German streets. The former refugee farmers are growing such items as okra, tomatoes, mint, parsley, cucumbers, peppers, corn, squash and Syrian eggplant, used in popular ethnic dishes. The farmers sell their goods at four farmers markets, including the Little Italy Farmers Market, and also use the produce to feed their families. This is the second year of the program, which provides a stipend to the farmers. Funding comes from a variety of grants, according to Dylana Grasinger, executive director of the International Institute.
The three farms serve as a living laboratory, as the farmers learn to adapt their agricultural knowledge from their former countries to this region and also are mentored in how to run a small business. Eventually, they may want to invest in their own farms, helping to revive farming in places where land has fallen out of such use, Grasinger said.
Hamid Mobin, who was born in Iran and came to Erie six years ago, is program coordinator for Flagship Farms. He and Sarah Young, a VISTA volunteer, support the farmers by handling paperwork, working on communication and other tasks.
French Street Farms, owned and operated by Carrie Sachse, is a nearby neighbor, and Grasinger envisions a time when Flagship Farms might become part of a farming district in the City of Erie.
Mobin enjoys seeing how the former refugees grow in confidence and pride as they work their farms. "They used to do the same thing back in their countries (of origin). When they see the same results in the USA, that makes them happy."
Liz Allen followed tips shared by Heather Zimmerman during an Erie County Library Zoom program to plant two successful square-foot gardens this summer. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you know?
Garden of Edin, in the 4200 block of Route 6N in Edinboro, is open on Sundays from noon to sunset and Monday through Saturday from sunrise to sunset. The beds are tended by individual gardeners, but many are happy to share what they learn with visitors.
The Little Italy Farmers Market, 331 W. 18th Street, is open on Mondays from 3 to 6 p.m. It accepts SNAP, WIC and FMNP Senior Vouchers to encourage shoppers to eat healthy, local food. Vendors include Flagship Farms, a program of the Erie Field Office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants at the International Institute.