Norwood’s Community Garden ... A Very Special Place
Sathvika Kommera takes a break from tending the Environmental Youth Coalitions’s food pantry plot
By Donna Lane
The Norwood Community Garden has been in full swing since early June. It is where 72 different households come together to plant, chat, learn, teach, and grow. Those households have roots in many other parts of the world… Portugal, Honduras, Italy, India and Ireland, to name a few.
Each household gardens on an 8x16 foot section of former pasture land, in the conservation area of Endean Park. Some of the gardeners are old hands while others have never used a trowel. And while there are these two wide gaps of knowledge, all come together in relative harmony and a desire to grow food, pass on their knowledge to their children or to others in the garden.
Gardening as a community is not always easy. Since it’s on conservation land, our garden must be totally organic. In addition, we cannot kill, trap, or move critters that may have invaded our space. This year, it’s the chipmunks and voles, so we rely on Mother Nature’s help to keep them in check. Our friends, the hawks, are helping out quite a bit.
One of our biggest challenges is the proliferation of weeds, especially in the aisles between plots and along the perimeter of the garden. The gardeners are starting to realize that many of the problems we have with insects and disease are due in large measure to how we keep house. It is a matter of education and requires constant reminders by garden manager, Susan Clare, section coordinators, and the garden’s advisory committee – Joe Barrett, John Churchill, Satish Kommera, Paula Martin, Dympna O’Carroll, Theresa Petrucci, Carolyn and Jim Stahl, and Susie O’Donnell.
Clare credits several Norwood Evening Garden Club members, each of whom are also master gardeners, with helping to identify problems and offering solutions to those problems.
“Whether it’s an egg sac, a bug, or some type of blight, these master gardeners are an immeasurable help at the garden,” Clare said. “Eleven years ago when I started this garden, I knew nothing about gardening … only that we needed one. The master gardeners were very kind and most generous in sharing their knowledge and skills.”
Clare said that this year’s mix of gardeners has even more diverse ethnicities than in past years and they seem to communicate more with one another and are friendlier. That observation was borne out during interviews conducted with some of the gardeners. Clare shared the gardeners have also been more responsive when asked to help with projects that benefit the entire community. And, they are very responsive to sharing with the food pantry. The first delivery from the garden on July 15th consisted of about 50 pounds of produce, including squash, peppers, lettuce and kale.
Some gardeners have maintained plots from the beginning, but there are quite a few new gardeners this year. Those who cannot manage their plots due to time constraints or health issues often give them up so someone else has an opportunity to use the land. They have an open invitation to return in the future if their situations change and a plot is available.
In his eighth year at the garden, Seamus Johnston, who grew up on a farm in Ireland, skillfully grows quite a lot in his small plot including spectacularly sized onions and cabbage, peas, strawberries, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, squash, wax beans, cucumbers, and celery. The size of his rhubarb plant is on the way to becoming legend, and he puts it to good use making rhubarb ginger jam (with yours truly) a couple times a year. He is generous with his knowledge and shares his bountiful harvests as well, sometimes growing vegetables he does not eat for the sheer joy of growing them and giving away the entire crop to fellow gardeners and the food pantry.
He sometimes finds the community aspect of gardening difficult. He is a perfectionist and is frustrated by people who don’t take proper care of their plots and who let weeds build up.
“It’s not fair to everyone else,” Johnston said.
Johnston believes the secret to his success is that he visits the garden and waters his plants every day. Checking one’s garden every day is the best way to stay on top of problems as they occur.
Brenda and Mark Hoover [and their neighbor Maria Badger who shares the plot] agree. Their garden is admired by everyone who passes by. It’s the first garden you see as you enter the main gate. Neatly planted rows of Roma, beefsteak and cherry tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, green beans, lettuce, broccoli, and kale don’t have to compete with weeds thanks to the diligence of this couple.
“We’re kind of under pressure because we’re up front,” Mark joked.
They have maintained the garden for five years.
“The three of us knew nothing about gardening when we started,” Mark said. “And we still don’t.”
“This year we’re starting to grow vertically,” Brenda chimed in laughing. “Each year is a learning experience — not only what you do but seeing what other people do as well. It’s fun to figure out what you’re going to put in.”
This year Brenda put in extra time to plan the garden,” Mark said. “Brenda’s always grown a few tomato plants at the house. Funny thing is I can’t stand tomatoes, but she passes them out to all the neighbors and they love it.”
“The cherries are my favorite,” Brenda said. “My Dad used to grow them and go out to the garden and pop them into his mouth.”
A woman stopped by during the interview and offered up kale to the couple. Another stopped to chat and compliment them on how neat and clean their plot is.
“We’ve met more people of different nationalities and different interests and people will always stop and look at what others are growing and how they’re growing it,” Mark said. “Everyone seems to be in a good mood when they come up here. It may sound a little corny, but it really does feel like a community.”
“It’s also a nice little hobby to have,” Brenda mused. “Our kids are grown now, so we don’t have to go to hockey or soccer games anymore and we have more time to come and work at the garden.”
“I love coming here after dinner in the evening; it’s pretty up here,” Mark said.
This is the third year in the garden for high school senior Sathvika Kommera, co-president of Norwood High School’s Environmental Youth Coalition.
“We strive to make the high school and Norwood a better place by doing team projects and other activities that help make Norwood more sustainable,” Kommera said.
Her garden helpers are students Navya Venkatchalm, Ayushma Kc, and Sindhi Koli, sister of Tanya Koli, who worked with her at the garden for two years prior to graduating last year.
All produce grown by the students goes to the Norwood Food Pantry. This year they are growing peppers, strawberries, zucchini, tomatoes, parsley, sage and oregano.
“I knew nothing about gardening when I started,” Kommera said. “I have learned so much but there’s still a lot I do not know. The amount this tiny plot can produce and the amount that we can donate is insane. I honestly didn’t think we would be able to donate that much.”
What made her want to donate her time in this manner you may ask?
“When visiting India on vacation, no matter where you go there are people begging – mostly for food but also for money,” Kommera said. “All that begging made a huge impact on me and I wanted to do something in my life to help the less fortunate.”
Sathvika’s dad, Satish Kommera, is an IT professional who relaxes by tending his garden. He, too, has maintained a plot for three years. Kommera said he used to garden with his father in India but that gardening here is very different.
“I have learned much about gardening here,” Satish said. “I learned how to properly take care of certain plants, and about the many weeds. When you ask people questions, everyone is very helpful, but everyone has a different idea about how to grow different things.”
He doesn’t much like the weeds that crop up but is enamored of coriander and has a huge patch currently in flower which is incredibly fragrant. He is growing five zucchini plants, a couple of tomatoes and peppers, and a rose bush that was loaded with beautiful flowers. He said he didn’t have time to plant seeds for cabbage, cauliflower, watermelon or okra this year but plans to grow them again next year.
Kommera is a member of the garden’s advisory committee and is impressed that the Town provides the water, compost and wood chips for the garden.
“You won’t find this kind of help in any other town,” Satish said.
Marta Mejia has also been growing at the community garden for three years. A naturalized citizen, she is originally from Honduras where she learned to garden by helping her parents.
“I love it,” Mejia said cheerfully.
There wasn’t a bare spot in her garden. Oh, wait. There’s about 6 inches of bare ground and she wonders what she can plant there. She laughs at her question as she points out what she’s growing this year – string beans, kidney beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, red roses, gladiolas, zucchini, watermelon, and a super-sized squash she called Calabrese, but wasn’t sure of its name.
She was preparing to put one of the super-sized squash out for the food pantry. Majia said she tries to grow different things each year. She points to the three corn plants she tucked in a few weeks ago.
“If I see a space I put more,” Majia said. “I say, oh I can put this here. My plot is so good. It makes me happy when I see things come up.”
She’s already thinking about what she wants to plant next year.
“Every week my kids [ages 10 and 13] come and they water,” Majia said. “It makes them happy. Gardening makes me happy. And I can help my kids more when I’m happy.”
Happiness seems to flow through the garden. Kate Smith, a two-year plot holder, said being able to work outside in the garden is something she really enjoys – and needs.
“In today’s housing market, it’s hard for people to find a home and a plot of land they can take care of and take pride in,” Smith said. “As apartment dwellers, my partner and I missed having an outdoor space we could call our own.”
The ability to be outside and use her hands is very important to Smith. She waited a year for her plot and said due to health issues and not planting until mid-season, the first year wasn’t very successful and the plot was often overrun with weeds. But it was a learning experience!
This season, she started early and, after cleaning the plot, put down tarps until she was ready to plant. She laid pavers in the center of her plot so she could access all of the plants without compacting the soil, and with the help of her father-in-law and the use of a four-valve manifold (splitter) at the water source, she installed drip irrigation.
“That way, I can be watering and stay ahead of the weeding at the same time,” Smith explained.
This year she is successfully growing lettuce, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, corn, several herbs, zucchini and summer squash, bush beans, butternut squash, bell peppers, brussels sprouts, Roma tomatoes, and two carrots. Yes, you read that correctly. Only two – just to try growing them from seed.
She says there are so many emotions wrapped up in being able to work outside.
“The garden has been an oasis during a very difficult time,” Smith said. “I want the Town to know what a great resource it is for residents and that all of their efforts to help us to maintain the area is so worth all of those efforts.”
Smith said her partner, her in-laws and her mom all enjoy being at the garden.
“It’s a great way to engage with the community,” Smith said. “The people I’ve met have been exceptionally nice. And, it has brought my personal community closer together.”
Whether growing okra, gongura, fenugreek, amaranth, Swiss chard, or the ubiquitous tomato and zucchini, the Community Garden is a place where vegetables from many cultures are sown and reaped, where friendships are cultivated, and charity and generosity abound, and people of many cultures work, learn and socialize in harmony. It’s a very special place!