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15 years and growing: Greenfield community garden celebration set for Saturday

Eveline MacDougall and her son Gillis, 9, work in the Pleasant Street Community Garden she helped found 15 years ago in Greenfield.
(Recorder/Paul Franz)

Eveline MacDougall and her son Gillis, 9, work in the Pleasant Street Community Garden she helped found 15 years ago in Greenfield. (Recorder/Paul Franz)

GREENFIELD — Life is returning to the Pleasant Street Community Garden after this arduous winter.

The first leaves of lettuce and the first buds of garlic are beginning to emerge from the soil, and the gardeners have been starting to tend their 40 or so plots at Pleasant and School streets as well.

They’re raking mulch hay, turning over the soil, applying compost and preparing their 10-by-10-foot or 10-by-20-foot plots for this, the 15th anniversary season of the little garden that grew and grew. Some put their children, their spouses and their friends to work as well, sometimes using shared tools from the shed, sometimes applying straw they’ve bought in common.

“The community aspect of the garden is one of the best parts of the garden,” says Sophia Pastore, who’s in the third year of supplementing her shady backyard growing area a block-and-a-half away with a sunny spot near the former Davis Street School. “We learn from each other and we trade surplus vegetables. It’s really great. Even if I did have space for a garden at home, I’d want to be part of the community garden as well.”

As the garden tending community prepares for the 15th anniversary celebration Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the property — complete with cake, games, tours and chores for those willing to share in the work as well — Eveline MacDougall and her 9-year-old son, Gillis, tend the land she helped convert from a lawn and ancient playground to a bountiful gathering spot.

“I dreamed of starting a community garden ever since I moved to Greenfield in 1987,” she said, recalling fond memories of growing up on her family’s Quebec farm, and of the work at a Winchendon organic farm that first brought her to this area. But when MacDougall read 10 years later about a community garden in Turners Falls winning an award, she thought, “Why can’t we do that in Greenfield?”

Together with Dorothea Sotiros and other friends in the community, MacDougall said she began to explore the possibilities and was advised to ask the Greenfield Department of Public Works for possible gardening spots.

At the DPW office, a woman brought her to what seemed like a treasure trove of maps with 13 suggested sites with potential for green thumbs. The intrepid gardener-to-be checked them out, one by “nightmarish” one: some covered in poison ivy, one a dumping ground for old tires, others in gullies and swampy areas full of mosquitoes, still covered in briar or laden with barbed wire.

Almost defeated, she rode her bicycle back to the DPW and asked if there wasn’t another possibility. That’s what led her to the yard of the former brick schoolhouse, by then converted to the school administration building.

For months, MacDougall bounced back and forth between the School Committee and selectmen seeking permission to use the property for a community garden, on which she and her committee finally broke ground in April 1999.

Colrain farmer Richard Pascale helped rototill the soil of what started out as a smaller space — enough for 15 plots — and committee members had the soil tested and planted with rye, hairy vetch and other cover crops to start.

“Within a season, it was looking like this,” said MacDougall, pointing at one of myriad photographs of an array of flowers and vegetables. “It’s really beautiful.”

This year, Amandla Chorus, which MacDougall directs, will devote proceeds from its annual spring concert on May 10 to both the Pleasant Street and Just Roots community gardens in Greenfield, as well as Grow Food Northampton’s community gardens, as a way to “benefit their affordable food and land access programs, making it possible for members of low-income households to grow and eat nutritious local food.”

Like the potluck dinners, picnics and work bees at the community garden — which has been joined by another 40 plots or so at the larger Just Roots Farm off Leyden Road — this weekend’s celebration will be a chance for gardeners and visitors to rediscover the land and one another, MacDougall said.

While some of the growers, like Pastore, have space for gardens at home, many are apartment dwellers who have none. Some are college students, some are older people who have downsized their property and need garden space. There are immigrants from Moldova, from Ukraine, from India and China who share their recipes and stories about gardening in their native countries.

“I love that about the garden,” says MacDougall. “It’s really people from all walks of life.”

Members, who pay on a sliding scale from $10 to $30 a year, meet monthly throughout the year to review the season past, talk about areas that need tending or to work on realizing “fantasies” like a gazebo or a shed for hay or ways they can collaborate with various groups.

In addition to individual plots, there are common plots for flowers, for herbs, for fruit, where some groups from social service agency Clinical and Support Options and Community Enterprises can work together with other gardeners and share in the harvest.

There’s even a “free-for-all” plot, with a nearby blackboard noting which crop-of-the-week is available for visitors to pick.

“It’s sort of an extension of the idea of the commons that we had years ago in our country,” observes community gardener Tom Tolg, one of the founders in 1977 of what grew into Green Fields Market, “where people gather as a group to solve problems that would be difficult individually, like bulk purchase of hay and compost.”

Tolg and his wife, who live a few blocks from the community garden, find it’s an inexpensive way of growing their own organic produce.

“You’re outdoors and you have a lot of nice people you’re working next to,” he says.

Pam Lester, one of two workers in the school administration building, says she loves being able to keep an eye on her garden plot each day and get out before or after work or during lunch break to play in the soil.

“It’s really nice,” says Lester, an accounting assistant. “I can go out to the garden and pull a weed or two.”

Now in her third season of gardening there, Lester says she recalls how excited she was when she found that she’d inherited a few asparagus plants as part of the plot she took over, and how the woman at a neighboring plot shared some of the asparagus root crowns that she planted as well.

“People are always sharing, whether it’s seeds or roots or actual plants,” she says. “It really is community.”

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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