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Nightingale Community Garden in Dorchester opens first week April

Posted by  March 28, 2014 07:24 PM

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Trudy Cox, the garden’s naturalist, inspects a water barrel and begins to plan for the upcoming season.

Elnora Thompson reaches down into her seemingly empty garden bed and picks her
chamomile herbs. She rubs a few pieces in her hand and brings it to her nose.

“Doesn’t that just smell great?” Thompson exclaims as she hands it around so everyone can smell it. She takes a bundle of the herb in her hand to bring home to make tea.

Thompson is the head manager at Nightingale Community Garden, located at 512 Park St. in Dorchester, and has been growing there for about 25 years. The garden is about two acres and holds 131 plots. It officially opens for the season the first week of April.

The community garden has plots from local residents of various ethnicities, including Portuguese, Haitian, Vietnamese, Spanish, African American. There are about seven languages spoken and everybody grows things from their different cultural traditions, creating both human diversity and biodiversity.

“It’s about friendship, sharing and community,” said Thompson.

Bob Follansbee, a fourth-year community gardener and part of the Dorchester Food Co-op Community, said, “We learned five to six different things to grow that we never considered to grow. My wife used to hate okra, but if you learn how to grow and cook it correctly, it can be really good. We’ve been growing it for three years.”

The garden also has a small orchard with blueberries, strawberries, apples and huckleberries. The vines of the berries encircle the garden, bordering the fences.

“The guys are afraid to pick them because they have thorns on them,” said Thompson. “But us girls aren’t afraid.”

The berries also help prevent people from stealing, which has happened in the past.

Thompson loves to have children helping her in garden. Last summer kids helped her grow sweet potatoes and watermelon. Children come from the kindergarten class from the church across the street. An ABCD Head Start kindergarten class has its own plot.

“They run around inside of it and they trample it,” said Sharon Higgins, an ABCD kindergarten teacher who owns her own plot next to her kindergarteners. Higgins said the garden helps her children get in the dirt and learn about growing food.

There are also young people who are hired by the city of Boston who are part of a program that employs them to work in the gardens during the summer if they can’t find work elsewhere.

There are three garden plots dedicated to food that will be donated to a local food pantry. Thompson said that growing food for the pantry allows people to learn how to take care of themselves and it also serves as an outlet to help the community. Thompson said that her garden could feed up to four families.

“It feeds my family, my sisters and their families,” said Thompson. In the summer she can make a salad of lettuce and cucumbers straight out of her garden. Thompson said that having the garden helps because there isn’t a major supermarket around that isn’t a bus ride away.

Follansbee said the garden and Dorchester’s Winter Farmer’s Market serve as educational tools to teach people that they don’t always have to buy “cheap crappy food.”

“It’s an issue in our community,” said Follansbee. “People have to drive all the way to Jamaica Plain to go to Whole Foods.”

The community garden helps buffer that gap.

“It builds a bridge in food deserts in areas that wouldn’t normally have greater food access in a neighborhood,” said Dana Staley, the Boston Natural Areas Network garden outreach and engagement coordinator.

The Nightingale Community Garden is part of the Boston Natural Areas Network, which preserves and protects open space in Boston. Out of the 174 gardens in Boston they own the land for one third of them. The network helps maintain and protect the gardens and provides resources for the gardeners.

For each garden, there is a council or a group of people that help manage it. Each garden chooses what they want to grow. It can range from ornamentals to cultural food such as Vietnamese winter melons.

“We don’t tell people what to do,” said Staley. “They can do what they want as long as it’s not illegal.”

There are lots of benefits to having a community garden, Staley said. One of them is that they can bring a community together that wouldn’t normally get to know each other.

“Gardens offer a space where it’s safe, where you can get to know each other,” said Staley. “It brings a lot of pride to a neighborhood that might be dangerous or struggling.”

The gardens help people get behind it and are a tool of empowerment along with getting people to eat healthy and to exercise.

The Boston Natural Areas Network also provides compost from the city of Boston to gardeners and can provide an intensive soil study through local universities and labs.

Thompson said that the Nightingale Community Garden tested its soil at a UMass-Dartmouth for a cost $20, and while they were renovating the garden they had Boston University students make a class project out of it. That saved the community garden about $20,000. There used to be an old school where the garden is located which left a lot of lead and other heavy metals behind.

“In an urban setting, the main thing is to make sure your soil is safe,” said Follansbee. He also said that last year they refused compost from the city because it had concentrations of lead that was below the federal Food and Drug Administration safety regulation standard but higher than what they wanted.

The last Dorchester Winter Farmers Market will take place this Sunday from 12-4 p.m. at The Great Hall of the Codman Square Health Center, located at 6 Norfolk St. The Boston Natural Areas Network will be holding it’s 39th Annual Gardeners Gathering this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Northeastern Universit’s Egan Center and Shillman Hall., located at 115 Forsyth St. The Gardeners Gathering will include a speech from the mayor, educational lectures and tools to help prepare your garden for the spring.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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