Upgrades lead to growth spurt at urban garden
While ripping out what she thought were weeds invading her plot in Dorchester’s Nightingale Community Garden, Anne Stein heard a Caribbean-accented neighboring gardener admonish her with an “Are you kidding?’’
“That’s callaloo, not a weed,’’ Stein recalled the gardener telling her. “I’m like yanking it out of my garden, and apparently it’s edible.’’
So she took home that spiky leaf, akin to spinach in taste and popular in Caribbean cooking, and “it was like a B-12 shot. It was terrific. It felt like a rush of nutrients,’’ she said.
That’s the type of cross-cultural learning that is commonplace at the Nightingale Community Garden, located on the site of the former Florence Nightingale School, said Valerie J. Burns, president of Boston Natural Areas Network, which owns the garden.
“There are two things that gardens do: they grow fresh, really inexpensive foods that are often not available in neighborhoods,’’ Burns said. “And the second thing is gardens create a social space for people in the neighborhood to get to know each other in ways they wouldn’t in other parts of the neighborhood.’’
Dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, at the height of the popularity of urban gardens, the Nightingale on Park Street is the oldest and largest community garden in Dorchester. But the 1.4-acre lot was a bit of an organizational mess, unable to accommodate residents eager to grow their own food, Burns said.
With $475,000 in funding from Communities Putting Prevention to Work, the Boston Public Health Commission, and private donors, Boston Natural Areas Network recently renovated the garden with clearly defined plots and improved accessibility. The lot went from fitting about 30 gardeners to 132, with a rapidly growing waiting list. About 80 people, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino and City Councilor Charles C. Yancey, attended a dedication yesterday.
“As a youngster, my father had a garden in our yard, and he taught me how to get the suckers out of the tomato plants, and how when you’re planting the tomatoes and peppers, how to water them and make sure to take out the weeds,’’ Menino said. “It’s generational, that’s what it’s all about. It’s a quiet way of doing good things for themselves and also to help the community grow.’’
In the four weeks it has been open since the renovation, the Nightingale garden has started to yield everything from zinnias and marigolds to okra, tomatoes, and peanuts, said Elnora Thompson, the volunteer garden coordinator. The garden, she said, boasts gardeners as young as 2 years old, and groups that speak as many as six languages.
“Everybody in this neighborhood is a gardener,’’ Thompson said. “There’s lots of young people, a lot of families have gardens here, and all the nationalities that we have here.’’
As she worked on her plot, Wendy Simard of Dorchester said the neighborhood “gets the worst rap’’ and that places like Nightingale garden show the true nature of the community.
“These places are really, really important to the well-being of any urban environment,’’ she said. “Honestly, soil heals people. You come out, you’re grounded - you’re literally grounded - your feet are in the soil, [and] you reconnect with something that you’re disconnected from when you live in the city.’’
Katheleen Conti can be reached at email@example.com.