2017-06-08 / Front Page

Community Garden Rousing Success

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Despite cool temperatures and cloudy days, the two dozen garden plots in front of the Great Friends Meeting House have sprung to life. Despite cool temperatures and cloudy days, the two dozen garden plots in front of the Great Friends Meeting House have sprung to life. It takes vision and a green thumb to look at a swatch of grass and see a farm. Or, for that matter, a classroom.

When it was dedicated one year ago, the community garden at the Great Friends Meeting House, located one city block to the west from the sidewalks of Broadway and City Hall, was already a success story. All the key players and organizations had finally locked into place on a project that was 10 years in the making. At the time, Marilyn Warren, executive director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, called it “the realization of a long-standing dream.” Yet, Warren recently recalled that the enthusiasm was also met with a dose of skepticism in the community. Some neighbors, she said, were concerned that the garden would be neglected, perhaps vandalized and become an “eyesore.”

None of that happened. One year later, the community garden has become a neighborhood fixture and a place to learn about gardening and to share knowledge. “I do see people you would not normally see working together and helping each other,” said Warren. “It enhances that corner.”

Neatly laid out at the intersection of Farewell and Marlborough streets, all 22 raised-bed garden plots, which are offered for $50 a year to any interested party, are taken for this summer.

Another major player was the Aquidneck Community Table. “We opened applications [this year] in March,” said Executive Director Bevan Linsley. “Almost all the gardeners chose to return for another season, so with very little publicity, we found the beds full again.”

She added that allocation was based on a lottery system, “with weight given to those who lived in the surrounding neighborhood, and/or relied on public transportation.”

A lifelong gardener, Linsley does not have one of the Great Friends beds, but she visits fre- quently to take it all in, and to tend to the strawberry plants that are around the perimeter. Watering them takes about an hour. It’s a great opportunity, she said, to talk with other gardeners, compare notes, get one’s hands dirty and get feedback. “It’s the most fun,” she added.

“The other day somebody walked by and told me, ‘This has changed the way I walk home,’” she said.

Where a garden was planted, Linsley feels that a village has grown. It has attracted both recreational gardeners and rank beginners. “People who don’t have room for a garden, and those who are in need of additional food for the household,” she said.

Launched as a collaborative effort between the ACT, the MLK Center and the Newport Historical Society (which owns and oversees the Meeting House and the property), the initiative was introduced as an agent of change for many Newport residents. It was funded in part by a $245,000 grant received a year earlier from the Women’s Resource Center. For the NHS, which reserved two beds, it was a unique opportunity to create a link to Newport’s past by growing a colonial garden on its own turf, so to speak.

For the MLK Center, the plan was also mission-driven. It represented another bulwark against the constant presence of hunger on Aquidneck Island. From 2013 to 2015, meals served at the MLK Center jumped from 143,000 to 223,617, and those numbers continue to rise. Last November a food shortage crisis left the pantry shelves severely diminished until a quickly organized fundraiser and a generous (and successful) $25,000 match challenge from supporters Peter and Eaddo Kiernan stemmed the tide.

Warren is quick to add that hunger is always with us. The center balances food services with a variety of wellness programs and classes focusing on food and nutrition, and it is bolstered by the partnership with ACT. The MLK bed is used by the students in the summer camp program. They are advised by volunteers from the URI Master Gardener program, who were recruited by ACT.

Last year, ACT emerged as a hybrid of three community food groups, the Aquidneck Growers’ Market, the Island Commons Food Initiative, and Sustainable Aquidneck. Its website presents a collective mission that “combines civic conversation, local entrepreneurship, institutional partnerships, and digging in the dirt with the principles of an equitable food system for all on Aquidneck Island.”

There are two other ACT gardens on the island. One is at the Florence Gray Center in Newport’s North End, with 10 available plots. The other is the 33-bed, eight-acre Island Community Farm, which works in collaboration with the Aquidneck Land Trust and is located off Green End Avenue in Middletown.

What resonates with the community garden seems to be that gardening is good for the soul. Warren told a story about a woman, a novice gardener, who one year ago signed up for a plot.

“She chose the Great Friends location because she didn’t have all that much experience,” she said.

She also knew she would be in the midst of other gardeners. This year, she is again planning a garden bed, but at the Florence Gray Center instead, which is closer to her home.

“She said she learned so much at the meeting house last summer that she wants to go back to her neighborhood so she can help others,” Warren said.

“I have done community organizing work on and off for 30 years,” Linsley said, “and building that community garden, and feeling the love of the community, is the most satisfying, exciting project I’ve ever worked on.”

This year ACT has formed a partnership with the URI Master Gardeners, two of whom will be teaching the MLK summer campers. Upcoming gardening workshops include “Planting for Fall Crops,” “Preserving the Harvest,” “Winter Cover Crops,” and “Seed Saving.” For more information on ACT and its workshops, go to aquidneckcommunitytable.org.

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