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Gift of a vegetable garden yields much more than food

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2008

For Westford resident Cynthia Ehrlich, growing a vegetable garden on her own is impossible. On a limited budget and suffering from chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, the 68-year-old can neither physically perform all the tasks required to build a garden nor afford the soil, seeds, and plants.

But today, Ehrlich can look outside and admire her three newly built gardens, rich with soil and seedlings, provided by Growing Places Garden Project Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Harvard that builds and donates raised-bed gardens to low-income households.

"This is a blessing from the universe," Ehrlich said recently as she watched seven volunteers assemble the gardens in her yard. "This fulfills a dream I just wasn't able to do."

Now in its seventh year, Growing Places Garden Project helps qualifying households establish and maintain raised-bed gardens to provide fresh food during the growing season. Cindy Buhner and Kate Deyst are experienced gardeners who head up the organization and share their knowledge, time, and muscle to ease some of the burden of food costs among households in need.

For those who qualify, Growing Places will set up gardens, complete with seeds, seedlings, and periodic visits to check on the garden, at no cost to homeowners. In the fall, the organization returns to help with garden cleanup. It operates with a yearly budget that just doubled to about $60,000 with the hiring of Jodi Breidel in the new role of executive director.

Thus far, the nonprofit has served approximately 140 households with nearly 125 gardens, many of which Deyst estimates would cost $1,000 to $1,500 each if built commercially. This year the organization plans to build 20 gardens from Littleton to the east and Townsend to the west.

Breidel, Buhner, Deyst, and a few of their crew of 50 to 70 volunteers arrive with all materials and enough enthusiasm to produce three garden beds - each raised, for easier planting and containment. The homeowners pay no expenses but care for their gardens over the season and enjoy the bounty of their work. They gain fresh produce, confidence from a new skill, and camaraderie among neighbors and other gardeners. The second year they also receive assistance, then "graduate" from the program. The new gardeners are also privy to the wisdom Breidel, Buhner, and Deyst have gained after years of gardening in a finicky climate.

"Gardening in New England is all about patience," Deyst said. If a client "doesn't have a sunny spot to grow things, it is easy to get discouraged. We want them to feel successful so that donors and gardeners will feel the impact of all we do."

Impressed by her own family's output of food at family gatherings and the sharing that accompanied the garden harvest, Deyst was inspired to start the Growing Places Garden Project when she read an article about Dan Barker, who donated gardens in the Portland, Ore., area 20 years ago.

An experienced gardener who was planning to leave her career as a biomedical science researcher, Deyst said she knew this was something she could do while she raised her children. She met Buhner at a local mothers group, and they discussed starting a similar program. The two, through much trial and error with raised-bed gardens, hammered out the details.

"We thought, 'What is this raised-bed thing?' " said Buhner, who had never had a vegetable garden. "Then we put seeds in the garden, and they came up. I was so excited, and that hooked me."

The thrill was infectious, Buhner said, and she knew others would feel the same way about growing food to feed their families.

Relying on grants, donations, discounts from vendors, and elbow grease from the volunteers who establish the gardens, the program donated five gardens in its first year. The number of gardens has increased every year, with the crew often having to build the gardens in cold, spring rains.

David and Jodie Lasonde of Shirley received their Growing Places garden in 2005.

"This has been life-changing," Jodie Lasonde said.

The family's gardens are such a success that they donate strawberry plants back to the project and grow some food specifically to donate to a food pantry.

"We grow turnips," Lasonde said. "We don't eat them, but we know more elderly people do. They don't get a lot of fresh vegetables. We know someone will eat it, so it is not a waste."

With six children, the entire family takes care of the gardens, and freezes fruits and vegetables for winter. In addition to the savings, they have found an unexpected benefit - fun.

"Anytime we are in the garden, the kids are right behind us," she said. "And when you are having a bad day, you go out to the garden and weed, and you find your patience again."

For Breidel, Buhner, and Deyst, the reward is the feeling that they are improving their own corner of the world, one garden at a time. Ideally, said Breidel, the project will serve even more people and diversify its donor base.

"How can you go wrong?" asked Lasonde. "You don't have to put a penny into it. You just have to put your heart into it."

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil can be reached at szcesuil@comcast.net.

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