Community Gardeners Reap Fruits of Their Labor

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—As the summer draws to a close, families are harvesting the various crops grown at the nine community gardens throughout the city.

Each one part of the New Brunswick Community Garden Coalition, these gardens include a tremendous variety of produce, including many types of peppers, a variety of herbs and beans, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, and even melons. In addition, residents also grow flowers in the gardens.

The types of gardeners range in variety almost as much as the crops that are grown.  Some are extremely experienced, while others are novices trying to develop their “green thumb.”

Lina Ortega, whose family grows on two plots at the Feaster Park Garden, said she had a successful season in her first year in the community gardens.  Ortega grew tomatoes, corn, large carrots, chiles (hot peppers), beets, and onions.

“I had never done this before, and there were some issues with watering, but it was a successful season,” Ortega said. “I was happy.”

Amanda Gallear, a community organizer for Unity Square, a non-profit initiative which sponsors the Jim Landers Garden on Suydam Street and the Feaster Park Garden said the gardens are a reflection of the local Latino community.

“The gardens reflect the local community in the plants that grow there, from cilantro and tomatillos, to different preferences of chiles or herbs depending on where in, for example, Mexico or Guatemala someone comes from,” said Gallear, who oversees two of the gardens.

Ortega said that in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, her father had grown all sorts of crops on a small farm.  She said that growing her own vegetables at the community gardens allows her family to eat healthy and has been a great experience for her children.

Gallear said that caring for the community gardens is often a family activity in which even young children can play a role.

“There are many families with young children in the neighborhood here, and you can really see these families come together for quality time at the gardens,” Gallear said.

“A lot of families come to garden together, to pass on techniques or certain varieties of plants, or just a love of gardening, to their children.”

Another important benefit of the community gardens is that they allow families to supplement their diets with freshly grown produce. Many of the garden plots produce high yields of a variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes.

“This is supplementing a huge part of their family's diet, which is great,” Gallear said.

Maribel Vasquez, who this season grew a variety of produce at Jim Landers Garden said it feels good to grown her own food, “because you know what you are planting and that it is fresh and all natural.”

“If you go to a store, who knows what you’re getting, if it’s fresh?”

Ortega said she has been impressed by the high yields in her gardens, which included 26 ears of corn and many tomatoes.

“I couldn’t imagine so much could grow,” Ortega said.

Gardeners use organic seeds and seedlings which are provided by the New Brunswick Community Farmers Market greenhouse and local cooperatives, Gallear said.

She said that most plots in the Unity Square gardens are about 30 square feet, but there is also open planting space or communal raised beds available in both gardens for all the gardeners to use.

Vasquez, who has been gardening for three years, said she feels more comfortable planting in the community gardens because they often have more space than the typical yard in New Brunswick.

Like many gardeners, Vasquez has taken advantage of the free workshops which are offered throughout the year to all gardeners through Unity Square, the Rutgers Cooperative Extension and the New Brunswick Garden Coalition.

“My first year, I didn't know how to plant very well.  I didn't know anything,” Vasquez said.

“This year, I learned how to make compost, I learned what is in the soil.  I learned a lot this year.”

In addition to the benefit of growing one's own food, gardening can also help to take her mind off of life's worries, as well as provide a chance to meet new people, Ortega said.

“I was happy to have this opportunity.  It’s something new,” she said.

Gallear said demand for space at the gardens continues to grow, as most families come back year after year, often increasing the number of plots they tend to.

“We had such a high demand this year,” Gallear said, adding that Unity Square uses grant money it receives to add new plots to the gardens.

For more information about the community gardens, contact Unity Square at 732-545-0329.