Home News and Features Features A Different Model of Community Gardening

A Different Model of Community Gardening

Kale harvest in progress. Photos courtesy of Sheryl Rapée-Adams.
Kale harvest in progress.
Photos courtesy of Sheryl Rapée-Adams.

by Joyce Kahn

How does a quarter-acre of lawn get transformed in two months into gardens that  not only can feed the gardeners but also provide food for local agencies that feed people?

Driving by The Garden at 485 Elm, as the new community garden is called, I snatched glimpses this spring and summer of the site’s progression from lawn into a cornucopia of vegetables and herbs. I was excited to tour the gardens recently and learn about the process.

The garden project’s mission is to feed local people local food that they grow themselves, and also to help feed people who don’t have access to the garden. The brainchild of Sheryl Rapée-Adams and her husband, Chris Adams, the garden is founded on a new public-private partnership model: The couple owns the property and a quarter-acre of it is gardened collectively. There is no individualization of the plots for the 15 people currently gardening there, with the exception of the vegetable garden coordinator Cynthia Delfino and herb garden coordinator Lroy Meryhew, who also maintain private plots for themselves. Among the gardeners, there is a range of ages, availability, and physical ability. People work according to their skills and interests and take produce according to their need. The hale and hardy folk do the digging and carrying, while those with less raw strength perform such tasks as watering and weeding. Champion bug pickers and rototiller experts use their skills for those jobs. When a crop fails or succeeds, everyone loses or benefits together. And since it’s a collective garden, people who travel don’t have to worry about their gardens when they’re away.

“When we grow everything together like this, it means we can grow a much greater variety, maximizing the economies of scale,” Rapée-Adams said, “and there is so much food that we wouldn’t even be able to begin to say this person gets this much, and that person gets that much.”

The project was was a good fit for Rapée-Adams. She had never gardened but wanted fresh, local, organic food. She also wanted to use her experience in community organizing to turn her vision into a reality. “Nobody has to do every single garden chore, as gardeners would if they had their own plots,” she related. “I knew I wanted local food, that lessons weren’t going to do me any good, and that I don’t have the aptitude. … For me, gardening with others is literally the only way to do it.”

The garden has received contributions of materials, labor, plants, and a garden shed from many individuals and the Montpelier Parks Department. Using her organizer’s background to network on line, Rapée-Adams obtained goods and services, often for free, through Facebook and Front Porch Forum, for example. In addition, the enterprise was able to use its partnership with the city to advantage. After losing their first plantings to deer, the gardeners realized a fence was a necessity. Adams hired someone to dig the holes, he put in the posts, and the Parks Department’s Geoff Beyer came in with teams of visiting students and AmeriCorps and VISTA volunteers and put up the fence in a day and a half. The department also gave the garden a shed from Hubbard Park.

Rapée-Adams explained that the garden is organized according to what it made sense to grow together: one bed has corn, another is a “ratatouille” of potatoes, tomatoes and onions. A third includes three varieties of kale, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, and ground cherries. A fourth bed contains three varieties of beans, two kinds of chard, three kinds of basil, collards, peas, and eggplants, while yet another has vining crops. A beautiful row of sunflowers graces the back of the garden.

Rapée-Adams said that some people only want to come and get fresh salad ingredients every day, but for those interested in preserving, the yield of tomatoes, kale and beans is providing a bountiful supply for canning and freezing.

One benefit of the abundance is the opportunity to give some food away, Rapée-Adams continued. In keeping with this mission, 485 Elm works with Community Harvest of Central Vermont, a volunteer gleaning organization, which gleans primarily at farms, since community gardens with individual plot owners tend not to have huge beds of individual crops. At 485 Elm, CHCV volunteers follow very precise instructions as to what to thin and take. It’s a win for everyone. The gleaners have taken nearly 150 pounds of the community garden’s bounty to the Montpelier Food Pantry, the Montpelier Senior Activity Center’s FEAST meals program, and Capstone Community Action, for its Community Kitchen Academy program. Surplus medicinal herbs grown by herb coordinator Meryhew, a second-year student at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, will help provision Native Americans and migrant workers.

Four hundred feet of the property’s North Branch river frontage form part of a project under way in partnership with Friends of the Winooski River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Nature Conservancy to create buffer plantings and replace invasives such as knotweed with native species such as elderberry and sumac. While the Rapée-Adamses still own the land and pay taxes on it, because they have opened it up for gardens and plantings that aid stormwater mitigation in downtown Montpelier, the remedial work will be done at no cost to them. The couple have also held a workshop for neighbors to show them what they can do in their own backyards. To show their commitment to these efforts, the couple signed a letter of intent to the city of Montpelier that guarantees at least five years of community garden use of the quarter-acre now under cultivation, and protection in perpetuity of the property’s river frontage.

While not suited to those inclined to privacy, independent gardening and creativity in laying out their gardens, The Garden at 485 Elm certainly furnishes a model of efficiency and productivity–and an example of how people working together can feed themselves and the wider community.