Green thumbs discover sense of community at their fingertips

·10 min read

Jul. 10—Aaron Root spent years cultivating a little garden in front of his old Portland rental. But he lost his apartment a little over a year ago when a developer purchased the building to turn it into condos.

When he left, Root didn't just pack up his furniture. He dug up his patch of dirt, carting off fertile soil and dozens of plant varieties to his new home in public housing in East Bayside.

His new building does not have gardening space — so the moment he moved in, he applied for a plot at the nearby Boyd Street Community Garden, knowing how important gardening was to both his financial and mental well-being.

Root's parents gardened when he was growing up. His love for the soil is engrained in his being.

His plot at Boyd Street in a way is a collage of his own history. In it, he's mixed soil from his old garden with soil from his father's garden, which he collected after his father died a year ago. Many of the plants were propagated long ago from his parents' garden and have traveled with him for years, spreading their roots in each of the gardens he has lovingly tended.

A year after he was assigned an overgrown, untended plot, his garden blooms brilliantly in the center of Boyd Street — an array of vibrant green plants of all shapes and sizes. He grows 95 varieties of fruits, flowers and vegetables — tie-dye pink tomatoes, purple striped tomatoes, five varieties of garlic, lettuce, kale, green peas, marigolds.

His pride is evident when he describes his work, his language peppered with colorful words.

"I do this for my mental health. And I eat all the food that I grow here," Root said. "But it's more of an art project than anything else. I mean, look at it. It's (expletive) incredible."

Nestled in neighborhoods across Portland, community gardens like Root's Boyd Street offer residents both refuge and resources to feed themselves. In the gardens, residents from all walks of life work side by side. As they till the soil, they bump elbows with neighbors who might be close friends or complete strangers.

In partnership with the city of Portland, the nonprofit Cultivating Community operates 11 community gardens across the city, providing plots to more than 500 gardeners. To qualify for a plot, an applicant must reside in Portland. The central goal is to provide Portland residents with access to food — so though the waitlist for a plot is more than 1,000 people long, applicants who indicate that they are low-income are automatically moved to the top of the list.

"I think this is one of the best things you can do — to give support to people who might be struggling," said Guy Mpoyi Tshitoko, the organization's community gardens assistant. "Giving access to fresh food is an especially important thing we do."

DAILY SUSTENANCE

With food insecurity a major issue in Maine, people are searching for economical ways to feed themselves and their families. Many depend on the food they grow in their plots for their daily sustenance.

"I need to eat the vegetables because I don't have any money," said Kustansia Ounda, who lives in public housing and emigrated from South Sudan almost two decades ago. "I have a family to feed."

Ounda has cultivated her plot at the North Street Community Garden for three years. Before, she worked in a garden in Lisbon, where she learned how to grow crops in New England's climate.

Today, sitting in the center of her plot in a long skirt, the summer sun warming her bare arms as she harvested greens, she grows corn, potatoes, lettuce and other vegetables familiar to both Maine and her homeland.

Cultivating Community goes door to door to recruit new gardeners, trying to reach out to new Mainers and low-income city residents. Yannick Bizimana, the organization's manager of development and communications, said about a quarter of community gardeners are self-identified low-income but the aim is to grow that number and to increase diversity. The organization tries hard, he said, to bring immigrants to the gardens as a way to help them adjust to the city.

"There is often a language barrier for new immigrants, and we must bridge that gap so we can make these spaces accessible to people who don't speak English," Bizimana said. "Some of the staff speak French and other languages that come in very handy — for example, Guy is really good at French," he said of Tshitoko. "And we've tried to translate the forms that people sign and make all the guidelines and rules accessible to other languages."

Some gardeners say work on their plots provides them with both food and therapy.

Christina Tilley lives in public housing and has a modest plot at Boyd Street where she grows a variety of crops, but her main focus is on cucumbers, her 4-year-old daughter Mackenna's favorite.

"My daughter loves cucumbers, so I definitely wanted to be able to grow those for her. They are way too expensive in the store," Tilley said. "And I garden also to try to take down some stress and anxiety. It's just one of those things that I find comfort in."

Jenna Martyn-Fisher, the volunteer coordinator at Libbytown Community Garden, said that when she first got a plot there, "I was highly dependent on this food source, and without it, (financing groceries) would have been very challenging. ... I think for a lot of people gardening here, it's not only satisfying their needs for food but also their connections to the earth and more therapeutic connections as well to destress from everything."

That therapeutic benefit is recognized by local organizations, including Spurwink, which provides behavioral health and education services for individuals with mental health challenges and developmental disabilities, and The Opportunity Alliance, which supports individuals by addressing issues including mental health, substance use, homelessness and lack of basic needs. Both have recently acquired plots at Boyd Street for their clients to use.

"(Gardening) is very soothing," said Gavin Rogerson, a 31-year-old Spurwink client from Saco, who visits the organization's plot every Wednesday. "It's very therapeutic. I like to get my hands dirty."

Smiling broadly as he worked, Rogerson weeded and tended to his vegetables. He said that once his tomatoes and greens grow, he and his fellow gardeners plan to cook a big spaghetti dinner with fresh sauce and salad. Next to the vegetables they are growing is a flower memorial for a Spurwink friend who died. Through the garden, Rogerson said, the Spurwink community has a place to "remember her and grow some beautiful flowers for her."

When Tasha Moody, a peer recovery coach at the Opportunity Alliance, was given the chance to create any project she wanted for her clients, she immediately thought of a community garden.

"In my own recovery, gardening has helped me just stay sober and recognize where my mental health and wellness is at," Moody said. "I believe gardening can be really effective in helping us all, and it produces food, which is awesome."

DEMAND GREW DURING PANDEMIC

During the pandemic, Bizimana said, more people applied for plots.

"Food security and mental health for individuals who are out here, especially over the last couple of years, has been so vital," he said. "People being able to be outside and bring their families outside, being able to bring kids out here and play in the dirt and see where the food comes from, is an amazing opportunity — especially if you live in a one-bedroom apartment and the kids are stuck playing in the apartment. There's no backyard to play in, but this can be your backyard."

The eclectic collection of gardeners is a draw for some of them, who love the sense of community.

Kristina Minister, who lives near the intersection of North and Walnut streets, has had her plot at the North Street Community Garden for 10 years. She was on the waitlist for five years. She said she loves the world she has found in the garden that sits atop a hill in the East End, overlooking Casco Bay.

"I've gotten to know more people just by working in my garden than I normally meet, because it's sort of like an athletic event," she said. "You cut across all income levels and classes when you're here, and it doesn't matter what your financial situation is because we're all doing the same thing. So you do develop community relationships through giving and getting advice and helping one another out."

Minister's garden is a tribute to her mother's Victory Garden, which she remembers from her childhood during World War II. She saw how profound an effect the community effort of gardening had during that war, and it still inspires her today.

"We all worked hard for the effort during the Second World War. I mean, it was a humongous effort. But it's going to be even more of an effort to save the world from destruction and climate change — the destruction of the environment," she said. "It's going to be equal to what we did but more, and people don't realize that yet. But I have witnessed what a collaborative community can do, and it's a wonderful way to feel you're helping by growing your own food."

A SLIDING SCALE

Cultivating Community rents plots to gardeners on a sliding scale. The price per season ranges from $15 to $95 depending on need, and the organization provides seeds and seedlings donated from local farms and schools to those who cannot get their own.

Gardeners who can pay more offset the costs for those who can't. Those who are able to pay above the suggested amount are welcomed and encouraged to. The fees go to the city to subsidize the gardens. The city uses the money to provide the space, pay garden employees and provide fencing, garden sheds and other garden equipment.

Some gardeners have their fees waived entirely. Root, for example, paid $15 during his first season but now does not pay anything in exchange for the volunteer work he does beyond his own plot in the garden. After watching him turn the compost and maintain the public space, Bizimana offered him a promotion to garden leadership.

By engaging gardeners like Root to play larger roles in their garden communities, Cultivating Community hopes to create flourishing communities between city blocks, Bizimana said. During the summer, the organization hosts picnics in the gardens and invites all gardeners and neighbors to attend. It's a chance for fellow gardeners to meet one another and there are games and free food.

"The cherry on top of the whole program that I've been able to see is a sense of belonging that happens to individuals who are in this program — especially individuals who are moving here or are new here," he said. "I know that when I see someone who's seeking asylum that they live in one of these public apartments and it's a new place, a new country — everything is new. Being able to participate in this way gives them a little bit of pride and happiness. Being here allows them to feel like they're a part of the community."