|Somerville Community Growing Center, Somerville, MA
The City of Somerville is one of the most densely populated cities in the nation with close to 80,000 people in just over four square miles. This highly urbanized environment was made possible through the use of high density housing throughout the community, but often at the expense of residential green space. For Somerville residents looking to garden, "backyard" opportunities are generally very limited leaving little chance for residents to grow even a small portion of their summer produce. Fortunately, local initiatives in the city have created the Somerville Community Growing Center (SCGC). These gardens are managed by volunteer Garden Coordinators who assign plots on a first-come first-served basis, help gardeners get seeds and compost, and provide information and advice. The SCGC is located on a ¼-acre parcel and has become much more than a community garden, offering both educational and cultural performance programs. One of the unique aspects of the SCGC is how much has been made to fit into a small space.
The SCGC offers a wide array of activity and learning choices. There is an orchard for picking fruit, a labyrinth for walks, an amphitheater and stage for performances, a pond and stream that contain fish, and herb and vegetable gardens. Providing exposure to environmentally respectful practices is also an important aspect of the Growing Center. Solar panels located throughout the garden provide energy for lighting the barn and pumping the fountain and stream. A washwater garden recycles the water used during handwashing to feed a garden. All gardening is organic and complementary plantings are used to encourage healthy growth.
The SCGC sits on a portion of the site where the Southern Junior High School stood. The school was torn down in 1991, and in 1993 the Somerville Pride Working Committee (SPWC) was offered the ¼-acre plot as a community garden site by the Mayor. A proposal was created by a few SPWC members that was subsequently approved by the full group. The SCGC was then designed by local residents.
SPWC members also canvassed various agencies to talk about the potential benefits the agencies and the populations they served might realize by their involvement with the SCGC. Materials were donated for construction and numerous groups such as the Somerville Youth Program, Eagle Eye Institute, Somerville Environmental & Recycling Volunteers, Boys and Girls Club, Conservation Commission, City Year, local businesses, Somerville High Vocational Tech program, Walnut Street Center and The Cummings School assisted with building the garden.
Unlike a traditional community garden where one plot is managed by one family during the season, the equivalent of eight gardening plots serves multiple groups, all in the same space, throughout the change of seasons. Over 50 adults actively participate in some aspect of the garden. One of the major accomplishments of the Center is the large number of participants who have gone on to develop their own gardens based on their Growing Center experience, whether at home or at another community garden plot in the city.
The range of produce varies from year to year, but the fruit sampler list typically includes peaches, apricots, grapes, sour cherries, elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and sometimes strawberries. Vegetables varieties include tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers, garlic, hearty greens, hot peppers, and Egyptian walking onions. Some of the more unusual varieties have been kohlrabi, peanuts, and orach. Herbs include basil, chives, many kinds of mint, sage, oregano, fennel, and lemon balm. Edible flowers add special touches to the lunch time salads in the summer programs.
Produce is either eaten on site, taken home to families or residence homes by gardeners, or shared with the larger community. Center potluck dinners have featured peach chutney, cherry cobbler, and pesto pasta created from garden. Each season, the Center gives away hundreds of tomato plants to gardeners as well as making limited free seeds available. Excess produce ranging from tomatoes to maple syrup have gone to local food pantries over the years. A new tradition is the Somerville Syrup Pancake Breakfast that serves as a fund raiser for the Center, while giving the public a chance to taste local maple syrup.
Environmental and Community Education:
The SCGC provides a hands-on learning environment for Somerville youths to learn about the natural world, science, community service and cultural issues. After school programs are offered during the fall and spring, and there is a spring vacation camp offered in conjunction with local elementary schools. Both elementary and high school teachers use the SCGC as an outdoor classroom to support several educational programs.
A full season of concerts and other events are scheduled at the SCGC, which contains a small amphitheater. These events are free and open to the public. Summer events include Art in the Garden, an art and recreation program offered by the Somerville Arts Council, the Somerville Summer Theater Project, which includes musical plays such as The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland, Stonescape Painting and Storytelling for Adults, as well as musical concerts, art exhibitions and dance performances.