Jamaica Plain's Jo Ann Whitehead Teaches How to Grow Community

“Jo Ann has been a beloved teacher and mentor in Boston community gardens for more than a decade. Thousand of Boston residents have benefited from her leadership.” — Valerie Burns, president, Boston Natural Areas Network

Jo Ann Whitehead is a meticulous planner, but the good things she’s done as educator to Boston’s community gardeners were really not on her agenda.

Twenty-some years ago, when she thought she was all set in a career with the Boston public schools, the onset of bone cancer meant she had to resign her job. As her treatments progressed, it looked as though she would be able to do some part-time work, and she began working with kids in a gardening project. (Her eyes light up when she talks about how gardening jobs provided a means of teaching about responsibility and teamwork.) The one-time Indiana farm girl who had left all that behind to become an urban woman found that, after all, horticulture provided her the means of sharing and teaching the values that counted.

This is one of many seeming contradictions in Jo Ann’s story.  A professional who wants to check everything twice is not usually a person who has the time or patience to work with volunteers, but Jo Ann has always recognized the critical importance of volunteers and devoted time to nourishing them.

Basically a shy person, she has successfully organized giant city-wide events involving hundreds of people season after season.   Her humble jeans and t-shirt belie her connections with the powers that have made Boston a leader among American cities in the development and stewardship of community gardens. 

Even Jo Ann’s own garden involves a contradiction. The JP garden that she and her long-time partner Bette Jo Green created — and where they were married in 2004 — was a private space, but when admiring neighbors secretly entered it in Mayor Menino's garden contest, it tied for First Place and took on a public identity.

Jo Ann, a soft-spoken woman with short grey hair and a direct gaze, first became part of the unusual story of  Boston’s stewardship of community gardens in 1995 when she joined the Garden Futures team which decided to inventory the resources of Boston’s community gardens. What made the project unique was that it investigated not just the physical capital and maintenance of the gardens, but also the social capital – who was gardening and how were community gardens organized and governed? Why did some community gardens flourish while others withered and died? What effect did the social organization have on the health – the productivity and sustainability — of a community garden?

Garden Futures (which later merged into what became Boston Natural Areas Network, or BNAN) assessed the training and education of community gardeners, and discovered that while there was a range of horticultural skills among the gardeners, there was a common need for garden management skills.  A training program for community gardeners was needed. After looking at several models, they decided the best was the Master Gardener Program learn-and-serve model (graduates are committed to contributing hours of service), but it would need to be adapted to the urban and community garden environment.

Jo Ann laughs as she recalls being at a meeting where the training program was being discussed. It was called the City Gardener Certificate Education and Training Program, and Jo Ann claims that each person in the discussion called it by a different name. Under her guidance, it became the Master Urban Gardener program (MUG), and through her careful teaching and continuing contact with the graduates, the MUG program has come to have a resonant impact on community gardens throughout the city. 

Bob Pessek, who served for many years as the Boston Parks Department liason with community gardens, says the MUG course has a ripple effect in the gardens, teaching the tenets of integrated pest management, tolerance and respect for other gardeners, the virtues of mulch, and more. Since then, the Master Urban Gardener program has been expanded to serve backyard gardeners as well as community gardeners.

Pessek is a longtime colleague of Jo Ann. He recalls a situation in a community garden that was about to explode. A new set of garden co-ordinators had polarized the garden community, and both he and Jo Ann had been called to mediate the situation. Pessek describes the meeting: full of tension, people who were all unhappy, and Jo Ann, listening to everyone, not saying a lot herself, but making a few suggestions that seemed to give people room for some readjustment, a win for everyone. Phew! He was very glad that she was there.

Pessek also recalls with pleasure working with Jo Ann to take the MUG program on the road to a national audience. A MUG team took a “dog and pony show” demonstrating Boston’s model of training and support for community gardens to a national meeting in Minneapolis.

Pessek’s overall professional assessment of Jo Ann Whitehead is “knowledgeable, always well-prepared, an educator capable of explaining complex issues clearly, and a real sweetheart.”

Support for Boston’s gardeners goes well beyond the training program. Among the programs Jo Ann developed for city gardeners during her tenure at BNAN are the Spring Perennial Divide and Autumn Harvest Festival.  The Spring Perennial Divide was first suggested by a gardener who was in the process of salvaging plants that had expanded into oversize clumps: what to do with the extra plants? Jo Ann recalls the first such event as a little group of gardeners getting together on a rainy day, happy as clams sharing their excess chives, iris, rhubarb, and other perennials from their gardens. Now the celebrations are open to all the gardeners in the city who come to share, and pick up, garden treasures.

And then there is the annual Gardener’s Gathering, which had been held for many years, but under Jo Ann’s careful organization has become one of Boston Natural Areas Network’s signature events. Among the hundreds of participants from all over the city attending workshops and pouring into the hall for the Mayor’s remarks (and the doorprizes), many feel an immediate connection to Jo Ann as teacher, mentor, and friend. It has become a remarkable network of city gardeners.   

Jo Ann has recently retired from her position as Garden Educator for Boston Natural Areas Network.  Valerie Burns, President of BNAN summed up her contributions recently: “Jo Ann has been a beloved teacher and mentor in Boston community gardens for more than a decade.  Thousand of Boston residents have benefited from her leadership.” The Boston City Council echoed these sentiments in an official resolution in recognition of her “dedication to community gardeners city-wide.”

The BNAN programs are city-wide, but Jamaica Plain has often been over-represented in the Master Urban Gardener classes. One JP resident and MUG graduate is Nancy Havelka, a gardener at the Jamaica Plain Chilcott-Granada garden.  Havelka logged some of her volunteer hours as a classroom assistant in the program, and she describes the trajectory of the class:

“If you had to use just one word about the way Jo Ann works, it would be inclusive. At the first class there is a roomful of personalities all trying to figure out how they fit in. By the end of the last class you have this community, sharing, forming bonds and connections. The class was supposed to be learning how to form a community, and in the process one is created.”

Havelka and many other MUG graduates mentioned the steady stream of emails from Jo Ann that make one feel connected to Boston’s gardeners. One reported, “You perk up when you see one of Jo Ann’s e-mails in your inbox.”

Some examples of e-mails over the past year: recruiting MUG graduates to lead workshops on composting and container gardening,  to volunteer at the Winter Lights festival in East Boston, to apply for local jobs in horticulture, to meet with residents of a housing project about gardening, to enjoy a concert of poetry and art songs inspired by nature, to collaborate with reading teachers on a unit on gardening, to come to a meeting of Boston Parks advocates, to harvest lettuce at the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester, or to speak to a group about nutrition.

Havelka explains, “The e-mails give you a scope of the tasks, some small idea of all that is going on in Boston gardening. There’s always a place you can be part of it, a way you can fit in.” (BNAN plans to have the new Garden Educator continue this network of information and contacts!)

Jo Ann claims that she is planning a retirement based on Ruth Stout’s no-work gardening method. But we know that sometimes things turn out differently than even the most careful plans.


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