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Urban Gardening

By Steve Liberace | July 23, 2010

New England is known for summer getaways, but what do you do if you’re stuck in a hot city like Boston? You start a garden. Throughout New England, urban gardening is popular, accessible, and affordable. And it takes many forms.

Though public gardens and urban wilds provide ordinary people with access to the natural world, community gardens offer a personalized gardening experience for citizens interested in a hands-on approach. Neighborhood residents cultivate small plots at affordable prices. The University of Maine’s Bangor campus sports a community garden; faculty and students work together and share the harvest. But community gardening also thrives amid Boston’s bustling streets.

According to Marlo Pedroso of the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN,) a non-profit organization that owns and manages 40 community gardens throughout The Hub, officials stands squarely behind community gardening. “Mayor Menino and other officials are strong advocates of community gardens and urban wilds” says Pedroso. “They see them as a benefit to the city. The Department of Urban Development helps to identify city lots with potential, and the City of Boston has a free composting program, from leaf collections, that’s unique to Boston. There’s a long history of urban gardening in Boston.”

Paul Gore Street, in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, is a hotbed for community gardening. The garden at the corner of Beecher Street is owned by BNAN. Nestled among regal multi-family Victorians, it’s a verdant oasis for local residents. Just a short walk from the Orange Line’s Stonybrook T stop, its plots rent for $30 per season.

Priscilla, a college librarian, hovers over her plants. “I just love the community here,” she says. “If you want a solitary experience, it’s large and lush enough to work in solitude, but there are so many knowledgeable people around. If you have questions there’s someone who will help you. If you have experience, there’s always someone new to teach.”

A short hike uphill, the ‘69 Paul Gore Street Garden’ hosts more community plots. Tess, a young compliance officer at a small Boston investment company, enjoys the direct experience of nature that her garden plot offers, exchanging her laptop and blackberry for a wheel barrel and trowel. “I work at a desk all day, so this is a great change of pace. It’s beautiful--a wonderful place to come with coffee in the morning.” She plucks two succulent cherry tomatoes off the vine and offers them graciously.   “I’m pretty new to gardening, and I love growing my own food.

Kids Like It, Too

Young children can also benefit from the urban gardening experience. BNAN offers a program called “Students Learning through Urban Gardening” (SLUG,) to 1,600 local students, mostly grades K through 6. The program provides a hands-on learning experience teaching every step of the gardening process. Students grow plants both indoors and out, well into the winter months.   According to Marlo Pedroso, students even make their own indoor compost, using worms.

“Students see the whole life-cycle” says Pedroso. “Worms hatch from eggs, grow up, and convert vegetable waste to compost for gardening. Some kids become so attached to the worms that they name them and want to take them home. It’s really something.”

Guerilla Gardening!

For the majority of law-abiding folks, urban gardening has solid, legitimate roots in the fabric of city life. But there is a darker side. At its most controversial, urban guerrilla gardening is downright criminal. Richard Reynolds, whose passion for gardening matches his enthusiasm for radical politics, compares the intensity of this global, non-violent movement to the struggles of military insurgents, like Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevera.   In his book On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries, Reynolds defines guerrilla gardening as “the illicit cultivation of someone else’s land.” This takes many forms, but the most extreme scenario involves gardeners taking over abandoned city lots to grow ornamental plants or food crops.

Reynolds identifies Boston, along with 24 other American cities, as a hotbed of guerrilla gardening activity. He recounts the tale of Heather, a landscape architect with a love for Bitter Melon. In 2005, on National Bitter Melon Day, she set up a stall in china town to distribute bitter melon “seed bombs” to residents for guerrilla-style distribution. Ironically, according to Reynolds, many neighborhood connoisseurs kept the seeds for their own.

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