Let It Grow

C onventional wisdom says Mother’s Day is the time to begin planting most summer crops, when the danger of frost is pretty much past. Still, many New Haven gardeners had already plunged their hands into the dirt well before last Sunday as a new enthusiasm for growing their own food bloomed this season. “There’s been a huge increase in food plant purchases, and seed companies I know are going nuts,” says Eliza Caldwell, community garden manager at Gather New Haven, the new organization formed by a merger of New Haven Farms and the New Haven Land Trust.

Some new gardeners who are lucky enough to have a patch of sun in their own backyards are learning how to plant them from Raven Blake and Dishaun Harris (a.k.a. Farmer D) of Love Fed New Haven. Still a seedling itself, the two-year-old organization is supplying New Haveners—prioritizing the most food-insecure—with lumber to build their own garden beds, plus organic soil, seeds, seedlings and plenty of instruction and support. Last year, they got 25 new growers started; this year, they’re on track to build 100 more “home farms,” in addition to offering cooking workshops and teaching urban farming to kids and teens.

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Blake rattles off a list of crops being grown: lettuce, tomatoes, collards, okra, watermelons, strawberries, raspberries, corn, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, amaranth, kale, callaloo, mint, lemon balm… What’s exciting, she says, is not just that people are growing their own food at home but also that they’re “reconnect[ing] with food in a different way.” That’s especially important to Blake, who came to urban farming from the food and wine media industry, which she ultimately found “appalling” because it glamorizes food and trades on mass production and marketing rather than sustainable practices, health and well-being. “When I moved back to New Haven, I was just motivated to kind of make a change,” she says. Love Fed New Haven also has two small gardens of its own—one at the Goffe Street Armory and one next to the offices of ConnCAT at Science Park—“to just grow as much food as possible” for those who need it.

Gardeners who can’t build a bed at home flock instead to one of the city’s community gardens, more than 50 of which are operated in every corner of the city by Gather New Haven. They accommodate about 800 urban gardeners, says James Farnam, interim executive director. Gather provides both newbies and experienced green thumbs with plots of soil, water, seeds and seedlings for a seasonal fee of $25, or $5 for those with lower incomes. Some offer individual plots. Others, like the Springside Community Garden, have shared plots that members farm together. One recent afternoon, Razib Obaid wandered among the beds of scallions, mustard greens, garlic, radishes and more with a garden hose while his young son Jojo dug for earthworms. The garden also boasts a cover crop of rye and some flowers for pollinators; a couple of beehives are tucked behind a greenhouse. “We need an outlet, a place to go with this quarantine…, and I think spending time at the garden is probably the best time,” Obaid says.

Gather New Haven also operates six urban farms, growing 15,000 pounds of produce each season, and offers a farm-based wellness program in conjunction with five local health centers. (Additionally, it’s putting on a May 22 virtual benefit concert featuring Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi.) The crops vary as much as the people growing them, says farm manager Jocelyn Tidwell. “It really depends on the garden and what kind of gardeners are there,” she says. “You’ve got your nice staples which everybody loves that grow here and that people are looking to grow,” but there are also opportunities to try something new. For example, participants encouraged her recently to try out cacti and lima beans.

Caldwell encourages gardeners getting their hands dirty for the first time to start small by growing food in a few pots filled with organic soil—especially if they haven’t had their own soil tested, because New Haven’s industrial past has left behind metals that can be hazardous for growing food. Tidwell suggests starting with easy crops like tomatoes, beans and greens—lettuce, kale, collards. “Start with what you eat,” Caldwell adds. “The saddest thing is a huge harvest of radishes” if, like her, you’d rather not eat them.

Up at Edgerton Park’s community garden, Jenny Byers agrees. “I would tell [people] to plant whatever they like,” says the master gardener and recent past president of the Edgerton Park Conservancy. “You think you’re going to have a salad tonight? Okay, so go cut the lettuce at 4:00. You want fresh strawberries on your ice cream? Go get the strawberries. It’s wonderful… The source of your food is really important, and it gives you sort of a sense of security.” Byers names a few popular crops but settles on potatoes as her favorite. “Come the fall, when the plants themselves die back, [harvesting them is] like an underground Easter egg hunt… And they keep really well!” Byers also favors marigolds around the edges of a garden plot to distract bugs from the crops.

Established in 1982, Edgerton’s 75 garden plots are already well on their way this season. Twine lattices are strung in anticipation of climbing pea plants that are now just a couple of inches high. Diminutive tomatoes haven’t yet outgrown their cages. Lettuces in shades of green and purple are stretching their ruffled leaves. But scoring a plot at long-established Edgerton can take four or five years on the waiting list. The annual cost is $35 plus a membership in the conservancy ($25 for individuals, $40 for families).

In four raised beds at Edgerton, gardener Tawnie Olson is cultivating potatoes, peas, carrots, beets, kale, spinach and a flourishing rhubarb plant, which she’d recently harvested to make strawberry rhubarb cobbler for breakfast. Everything is planted, and one recent afternoon she was weeding, which offers its own rewards. Unlike many other pursuits, “you can see the difference when you’re done,” she says. Olson, who grew up in western Canada, sees Edgerton’s garden as something akin to paradise, hungry birds and squirrels and groundhogs notwithstanding, because she’ll get to plant a second crop midsummer.

Any gardener can take advantage of the services and resources these organizations provide. G.R.O.W.E.R.S. Inc., a program for adults with developmental and physical disabilities, grows and sells seedlings at Edgerton’s greenhouses. Gather New Haven will be holding a socially distanced seedling sale from May 22 to 24 at its 613 Ferry Street farm, and its crew of Growing Entrepreneurs—New Haven high school students in a two-year business entrepreneurship program—will build and set up a raised bed for homeowners within five miles of Fair Haven for $250, including materials, soil and installation. Gather’s Saturday Ferry Street farm stand opens Memorial Day weekend. Love Fed New Haven is still accepting applications for home farm installations.

No matter your situation, the bottom-line message from all these garden experts is don’t overthink it. Just go for it. “At the end of the day,” Tidwell says, “seeds want to grow.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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