It's A Cooperative Effort At Robbins Farm Community Garden
One-year pilot program has proven to be successful.
For Michael Prager, being a member of the Robbins Farm Garden has given him a new set of friends, made him feel a vital part of both the Arlington community and that of the organic garden and – especially— taught him a tremendous amount about how to tend the soil and reap its benefits.
"It's been unbelievably successful," he said of the one-year pilot program granted by the town's Parks and Recreation Department for a group of residents to use a small parcel of land at Robbins Farm Park for a community garden.
"After growing vegetables with this group of people, I've altered the way I've looked after my own garden at home and it's become very important to me to know where my food comes from," Prager said.
He and 16 others received permission from the town last winter to plant a garden in a 25-by-40 foot area just below the children's playground. Each paid $75 to be a member of the group, $10 of which went toward the Arlington Beautification Fund and the rest for such necessities as seedlings and lime.
The group eagerly gathered in the early spring to remove the sod from the plot, put up a fence and prepare the garden with one yard of peat moss, two yards of compost and two of loam, 300 pounds of composted cow manure and 160 pounds of lime.
Members meet in the garden at least twice a week – mainly on Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings – to discuss their plans, plant vegetables and – within time – harvest their crops.
In the beginning of the season, they had to haul water from home to keep the plants healthy throughout the extreme heat and often depended on the help of a resident, who lives across the street from Robbins Farm Park, who offered his hose for them to fill their buckets.
Then, out of the blue, the gardeners came to the plot one day and saw the town had installed a pump, right outside the plot, for their use.
They were thrilled with the garden's yield, and recently remarked on how prolific their eggplants were and how well the greens did with several harvests of lettuce, arugula, rainbow Swiss chard and collard greens.
There were some disappointments, however.
"The pole beans didn't develop as well as we would have liked and our first planting of cauliflower and cabbage didn't do very well, mainly because bugs were attacking the roots," said Michael Smith.
"We have some educated guesses as to why certain plants did well and others didn't – mainly having to do with which like hot weather and which do not."
Timing of when to plant is very important, said Smith.
"Our first batch of beets didn't do very well, but the second was fine," he said. "We have charts of what we planted and now realize that certain crops shouldn't be put in spots where others have been."
Most important to all the members of the Robbins Farm Garden is how they learned together –as a team – as the season progressed.
"Many community gardens are individual plots where people only meet over the fence," said Prager. "This was a cooperative effort where we all worked together."
Melanie Wisner, who has been gardening at her house for years, said she's been doing so in a "careless way" and gathered a wealth of knowledge this year as a member of the Robbins Farm Garden.
"If I was still gardening alone, I don't think I would have had the kinds of thoughts we came up with as a group," she said.
For example, the gardeners debated at length how to maintain their compost pile.
"We had quite a discussion of what to put in the compost," said Steven Lee. "I was in favor of using kitchen waste but there was some dissent in the group."
So, Lee did some research and discovered some fruits – such as apples – are sprayed in the fields and maintain residue of chemicals that shows up in the urine of young children.
"Most pesticides will break down or leach out but we decided to be careful," he said. "So we restricted our compost pile to just things that came from this garden."
The Robbins Farm Garden – a cooperative learning project that also acted as an educational gardening resource in the community – was approved for the 2010 growing season of April to October. The only restrictions imposed on the gardeners was that they couldn't sell the vegetables and had to end the program on Nov. 1 when they must remove the fencing, all plants and restore the plot to its former state.
An important part of the garden was having the educational component, said Prager.
"Our website was a large part of out education," he said. "And, as we gardened, children came up to the plot to see what we were doing and we took every opportunity to teach them about gardening and the various things we grew."
Currently, the gardeners are "wrapping up" the growing season and harvesting the remaining produce.
Hopefully, members said, they will be granted permission to have the community garden again next year.
"We will go back before Parks and Recreation in November, provide a written report on our season and make a request to continue," said Oakes Plimpton, the author of "Robbins Farm Park: A Local History," who came up with the idea for the community garden on the farm land after hearing Bill Moyers interview Michael Pollan about starting a community garden in Brooklyn, N.Y.
If granted the permission, the members said they will change certain things such as documenting their harvest in a more regulated fashion than just taking photos of the day's produce as they did this year and make sure certain plants – such as tomatoes – are planted farther apart.
They'd also like to have more room.
"This is like a postage stamp," said Plimpton in reference to the size of the plot. "We would like to have a garden that is 30-by-60 feet or larger."
For additional information on the community garden, visit the website at robbinsfarmgarden.org and the website for school children at veggieschool.robbinsfarmgarden.org