New Garden Model Strengthens Community

By Carl Etnier

Caitlin Roseen harvests lettuce leaves for donation to the Montpelier Food Pantry. Photo courtesy of The Garden at 485 Elm.

Many gardeners know the pattern: excited planning and work for a great growing year in late winter and into spring, followed by difficulty keeping the energy going in the hot months of July and August, when fast-growing weeds gain the upper hand. Or, as Libby Weiland put it in a phone interview, “When summer comes, life interrupts.” Weiland coordinates the statewide network for the Vermont Community Gardening Network. She said consistent, season-long participation not only afflicts home gardeners; it is also one of the most difficult challenges for people who coordinate community gardens.

Some Vermonters have taken a different approach to community gardening—and they’re finding it helps keep people engaged throughout the growing season. In the traditional community garden, individuals or households each have a small plot. With the exception of some communal tasks such as fence installation and maintenance, or annual rototilling, gardeners work their own plots and harvest the fruits of their individual labor—or suffer the losses of neglect.

Eight years ago, Fresh Start Community Farm in Newport opened, with the land divided into individual plots. Forty-five people started gardening in 2011, and only five plots were tended by the end of the season, according to current coordinator Jennifer Bernier. “A lot of the food went to waste,” she said in a phone interview “because you can’t really touch other people’s plots.”

Starting in 2012, Fresh Start took, well, a fresh start. Since then it’s been managed as one big garden, spread over several sites, and the gardeners share both the work and the total harvest. “Most of the people who start enthusiastically with the hard labor, getting everything ready, stay all year long,” Bernier said.

In 2014, Sheryl Rapée-Adams and Chris Adams started a similar model in Montpelier. In 2013, Rapée-Adams explained, the couple purchased the home with space for their massage business. It came on two acres backing on the North Branch of the Winooski. They looked at all the lawn that came with their new property, and “mowing that seemed crazy, for all the reasons mowing is a problem for the planet,” she said.

Now over a quarter-acre of the lawn is converted to garden space, with 22 households sharing the work and the harvest. For $60 a year, and two hours of work per week, the gardening households can stop by and pick enough food for a meal, whenever they wish. Only a handful of popular crops—garlic, onions, winter squash, and Brussels sprouts—are formally rationed, with each household getting a share of the harvest. The place is called, simply enough, The Garden at 485 Elm.

Gardeners are welcome to come by and do their work at any time. “We have found,” Rapée-Adams said, “the happiest gardeners come more than once a week, and work less each time and harvest some.”

Both the Newport and the Montpelier gardens have been funded in part by outside organizations. The city of Newport provided initial land to Fresh Start, and the New England Grassroots Environment Fund provided grants to both gardens to build infrastructure such as the deer fence in Montpelier. And both gardens give back. Bernier said Fresh Start has grown enough surplus food to donate a total of 28,000 pounds of food to hunger organizations. The Garden at 485 Elm has donated over the years to the Montpelier Food Pantry and to churches that host community lunches.

While there’s no room this year for more gardeners at The Garden at 485 Elm, Rapée-Adams points out there’s a lot of lawn space in Montpelier that could be converted to gardens. All three Fresh Spot sites are on former lawns, too. Rapée-Adams said, “I would encourage people who are considering [converting their lawn to a community garden] to try it, because it’s just been hugely positive.”

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