In almost every neighborhood in JP there is an open space where birds and community gardeners congregate. Each plot in a community garden represents a gardener's private vision, a workout studio, a meditative space, a battleground.
Work on the plot often begins in the dead of winter as gardeners pore over seed catalogs, comparing varieties by the number of days to harvest in our Northern summer, struggling with issues of genetic engineering and heirloom preservation, mentally laying out the garden, savoring in imagination the tastes and smells of the growing season.
Hall/Boynton Street Community Garden
For Evelyn Barbee the next step is turning seeds into seedlings during the spring months. As the days lengthen, a variety of heirloom tomatoes and peppers develop roots and stems and leaves in the safe warmth of Barbee's home. When the nights have turned warm, Barbee sets her transplants deep into the soil of her community garden plot. Barbee has been gardening since childhood, when her grandmother helped her grow her first tomato plant. Now, as coordinator of the Hall/Boynton Street Community Garden, she sees to the collection of gardening fees for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees gardens in the Southwest Corridor Parkland, and she keeps the garden in order.
According to Barbee, some of the young gardeners seem to believe that once you have worked the soil and planted the seeds you can go away and when you come back Voila! The crop will be ready to harvest. The less sexy part of gardening is the weeding and thinning and weeding and watering that determine a plant's development. The rewards – the taste of real tomatoes, the jar of homemade hot pepper sauce in Barbee's refrigerator – come later.
Lawndale Terrace Community Garden
Karen Chaffee, who gardens at the Lawndale Terrace Community Garden, grows something new every year. The new plant this year has been purple tomatillos, which have been so successful it makes Chaffee wonder if you can have too much of a good thing.
No matter what the new plant is in Chaffee's garden, there is always basil (and always pesto – with pine nuts, with walnuts, and even one version without nuts …and then there is cilantro pesto…). For Chaffee, gardening offers a kind of mind-body relaxation with a meditative quality. And along with the physical benefits, the garden offers social benefits as well: a way of making intergenerational community connections.
Chaffee, who works for the Boston Natural Areas Network, has used garden connections to help organize the Plant-A-Row-for Haiti project, which brings fresh produce to food pantries in Mattapan serving Haitian immigrants. This year community gardens have provided over 1,000 pounds of fresh vegetables to the food pantries.
Paul Gore Beecher Community Garden
Rosie Milano thinks of the plot in the Paul Gore Beecher Community Garden, which she shares with her husband Jay Sullivan, as a way of honoring the memory of her grandparents and their backyard garden in Queens. It was a small space, full of tomatoes and basil. On Sundays, Milano's grandmother turned it all into sauce with a full-bodied taste that still lingers in memory.
The Milano-Sullivan plot boasts not only picture perfect basil and tomatoes, but also Thai dragon chiles (so hot it hurts to taste), curved Asian eggplant, rhubarb, fennel, and in the corner, strings of hop vines. Hops, because Sullivan is a passionate beer brewer, eager to use his own hop flowers in his home brewing.
Unlike many American brewers, Sullivan prefers the "noble" varieties of hops more common in European beers: Saaz, a Czech variety, and the English Kent Golding and Northern Brewer. This is still only the second year for these hops (like asparagus, hops are for gardeners who can wait three years for plants to get settled), so Sullivan has yet to harvest a crop.
As we chatted in the garden, Sullivan was using tiny scissors to clip potential buds from basil plants that were still in their prime, long after most of their neighbors' basil had gone to flower. Sullivan uses basil in just about everything –beans and basil, rice with basil, zucchini, fish, and even lemonade with basil.
Getting ideas of how to use fresh produce is one of the challenges of the vegetable gardener. Barbee swears by NPR's The Splendid Table; others turn to Mark Bittman of the New York Times for things like his tomato (or tomatillo) cobbler.
This columnist discovered two great recipes for garden produce this year: roasted green beans (think roasted peppers, blistered and sweet – lots of recipes on the internet) and swiss chard quesadillas made with cheddar cheese and corn tortillas (the secret to this one was a narrow swath of Evelyn Barbee's hot sauce).
Upcoming Activities for gardeners and others who enjoy being in the out-of-doors
Season Extenders. A workshop by Boston Natural Areas Network on how to keep vegetables growing with a little low-tech protection against cold weather (and how to start things earlier next spring!). Saturday, Oct. 16, 10-11:30am at City Natives in Mattapan, registration required.
Putting your Garden to Bed. What should you be doing to prepare your roses, dahlias, delphiniums or azaleas for winter? Mahoney's is offering a seminar on Sunday, 10/17 at 1pm in Brighton.
The Edible Landscape. The Arboretum has examples of many trees and shrubs with edible fruits, suitable for growing and harvesting at home. Tuesday, Oct. 19, 10-11:30am. It is free and no registration is required.
For families looking for outdoor adventures, the Arboretum offers a letterboxing treasure hunt.
For artsy types, there are two local opportunities to visit art exhibits au naturel:
Agriculture Encounters Sculpture, the installation at Allandale.
For political/social activists, "Walk and Work: Energy Efficiency Needs Canvass," an opportunity to raise consciousness about green issues as Cool JP (a local response to the global 350.org campaign to cut carbon) is canvassing in JP and Roxbury.
For technogeeks, there's a cell phone tour of native trees at the Arboretum.