Community Blooms: Gardening Builds Community


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NEW JERSEY - Gardening builds community, and here’s how that has transpired in our area.
What’s challenging about gardening? Just about everything. Gardeners have issues with soil, weather, weeds, critters both big and small. The good news is that as local gardeners share tips, labor, resources and the bounty, not only are the gardens growing, the community is as well.
The Community Garden at UR Hardware is into its first season with 40 plots set up, each five by 10 feet.
“Plots are free to non-profit groups. For individuals, there is a per plot fee of $35, but UR Hardware & General Store will give you a $25 gift card with each paid plot,” says Kim Tomlin, store manager. “We are not trying to make money off the garden; we are trying to enforce the commitment to take care of it.” Participating are several non-profit groups, including the Girl Scouts and MOOD, a girl’s group.
UR Hardware is sharing the resources of its land. Lori Minklei, a plot owner, says, “I read your article. [Grapevine March 2016] I was the first to buy a plot. I live in a community in which you can’t grow a garden. It’s too shady. My plants are doing well [here]. I have seven tomato plants, three eggplants, carrots, lettuce, and spinach.”
However, even for those who could or do have home gardens, owning a plot connects them with a community. “I think it’s going to provide them with a social activity—you just can’t have that in your backyard,” says Tomlin.
Nicole Scull agrees: “I have a plot at UR Hardware on my own, but it really is a group.” She brings her son, Paxson, who enjoys learning about the plants. “Last time there were some kids, so he immediately joined them,” she says. Scull is growing several varieties of tomatoes, long sweet peppers, collard greens, and pickle-size cucumbers). “It teaches you so much.” She adds. “I missed the initial kick-off and barbecue, but was told I could call Harry.”
Harry Behrens is the founder and president of Impact Harvest, and he has been providing support to the community gardens. “We talked for an hour on the phone about the soil and how to fertilize,” Scull says. “I told him I thought I had a problem with my pickles. We found out it was aphids. They’re garden ninjas. We’re washing them off.”
At UR Hardware some of the labor is shared. In addition to building the frames, UR Hardware tilled the soil, put up fencing to keep deer out, and makes gardening tools available during store hours. The ongoing workload can also be shared, either within a group or as individuals help each other out.
Community is also nurtured when knowledge is shared. Tomlin is coordinating workshops; one was held on a recent summer night at Impact Harvest in Buena where the community gardeners gathered for hands-on instruction on pruning tomato plants and fertilizing.
“It’s all about community,” says Harry Behrens, who founded Impact Harvest in 2011. “We base it on Mark 12:3: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” That verse is their mission statement to use fresh-grown produce from their farms to show love to the community. “One hundred percent of our produce is given away,” Behrens says. “We are sharing best practices with community gardens.”
Last year 160 families were directly served, receiving a bag of produce each month. Impact Harvest also supplies produce to many area food banks. Their growth quadrupled in four years. “God has been crazy good in a lot of ways—it’s been that process over and over again," he says.
Fortune Magazine featured Behrens in 2015 as a Fortune 500 Hero for Fighting Hunger. Comcast, where Behrens works, partnered with him for Comcast Cares Day. More than160 Comcast employees volunteered. “We built a big learning garden,” he says. “It’s an outdoor classroom, 50 feet by 40 feet. It’s all vertical; it’s all grown above ground. It’s all designed to show different growing methods. We grow tomatoes, lettuce, beet, eggplant, potatoes, onion.” They are in gutters. “You are picking chest high. There’s no weeding. It’s controlled. It shows people how to grow produce in small spaces.”
They have also built a tomato trellis system; the tomatoes grow in containers on the ground, and wind up around fishing line attached to an overhead trellis.
Behrens explains that the learning garden and workshops is the direction Impact Harvest is taking to partner with community gardens. They currently have two farms, the property in Buena and one in Hammonton on Rich Weatherby’s property, where they grow the watermelon. Behrens now supports the MLK Jr. Center Community Garden, run by Quentin McClendon, and also UR Hardware.
“I just bought a 30’x100’ greenhouse and had gas added to my property,” Behrens says. With the greenhouse, he will serve his farms, the community gardens, and use it as a garden center growing plants like indeterminate tomatoes. “They have lots of variety and will grow until the plant freezes,” he notes. “They just need 12 hours of sunlight a day, but the plant can produce for 12 months.”
Behrens’ best advice to community garden leaders is about the oversight. His organization has a network of 80 to 90 volunteers. “For me and my family, it’s every night. I am making a checklist; it’s oversight.” Newer volunteers are paired with more experienced ones. His wife, Valerie, oversees the distribution of produce. “She does more than I do,” he admits. Also helping out are sons Anthony, 15, and Tyler, 10.
Marie Sullivan-Lopez has been volunteering at Impact Harvest for four years. “We lost our home in a fire. We now live at Fairview Manor. We use lettuce to meet more people,” she says. “There is a neighbor I know and elderly people who could use more produce.”
Behrens also offers hands-on advice. The group from UR Hardware gathered around his demonstration table as he showed his favorite way to grow tomatoes, using a fabric container grow bag. “Why prune?” he asks the group. “To get a bigger and healthier plant. I promise you they will be tastier.” He showed them how to identify and remove the suckers. “You have to have patience, especially at the top of the tomato plant,” he advises.
“You don’t have to rush. I tell my volunteers all the time, if you don’t know for sure, give it a week," says Behrens.
In the fields, Behrens pointed out that to keep out groundhogs and rabbits, it’s best to plant greens in the middle, out in the open, then plant onions and beets on the edges. “They won’t go out and get them,” he says.
The Master Gardeners set up a butterfly tent at Indian Avenue School in Bridgeton as a culmination of the year’s gardening events. Teacher Maria Canino heads up the school’s community garden. They also have a pollinator garden and have held a workshop on rain barrels. One of the afterschool clubs painted a Butterfly Mural, which was unveiled to coordinate with the Butterfly Release.
Onsite was Pam Burton, the Master Gardener coordinator, who enjoys working with schools and other groups. “Our mission is to provide scientific research-based information on horticulture and agriculture to the public,” says Burton. Master Gardeners are a group of trained volunteers who have completed 20 weeks of Rutgers’ courses in plant biology, pest control and more. In turn, they commit to volunteering in the community.
Inside the butterfly tent, Master Gardener Patti Sheppard instructs students as they see monarchs up close. Pollinator gardens are important because as land has been developed, pollinators no longer have food sources. A shortage of pollinators hurts our gardens and crops. Burton says simply planting milkweed in your backyard helps.
When it came time to release the monarchs, the students were thrilled to see them fly up just to touch down on some of their plants; they giggled as one alighted on Principal Carl Dolente’s head for a few minutes before fluttering off. Art teacher Barbara Cuff tends the Pollinator Garden and uses the peaceful spot for her students to observe and draw.
At the Cooperative Extension of Cumberland County, Agricultural Agents Sal Mangiafico, a water conservation specialist, and Wes Kline, whose concentration is in food, team up with the Master Gardeners to support gardeners and farmers. They also host a rain garden, pollinator garden, and an Asian-influenced garden. Nearby is a research farm, where the Master Gardeners also volunteer.
One of the goals, Kline says, is to identify plants that are resistant to issues farmers are facing.
Burton stops to look at a present dropped off for her; it’s a bug, some kind of beetle. The homeowner is worried that it is a killer. “We don’t promise answers,” says Burton, “but we do promise a response.”
The Master Gardeners also run a helpline for the community.
For local gardeners, there is a network of support encouraging the community to get outside, labor together, and eat healthier.
For More Information UR Hardware: or 856-692-3646
Impact Harvest:
Master Gardeners: or 856-451-2800, ext. 4