Shannon Bowser, Margaret Witham, Sandy DeSisto and Hope Van Epps work on the Cross Roads House garden.
By Deborah Twombly, UNH Master Gardener
A cool autumn afternoon in 2013 was the first time I noticed the six empty raised beds, seemingly abandoned, outside Cross Roads House. I’d been volunteering as a tutor at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire homeless shelter, which serves 90 residents including families with children, since retiring from Dondero Elementary School.
“Who is using those garden beds?” I asked.
“No one” was the reply from a CRH staff member. I was told the residents have no time to garden, between looking for jobs and places to live. However, there was another volunteer, Sandy DeSisto, who was also interested in reviving the project. A working garden would be a great benefit, added the employee, since the shelter prepares 90 meals a day.
With that, the idea for the Cross Roads House garden was born. I’d been a UNH Master Gardener since 2012, so I was able to turn to the New Hampshire Master Gardeners Association for help. They willingly blessed the project with a grant for tools, fertilizers, seeds, gloves and tubs.
Our first big planting day was the following April.
Sandy enlisted a bunch of volunteers, and I brought in the kids whom I tutored and a couple residents who were interested. Ron Christie, the head of the Master Gardener program in Rockingham County, also got involved. We arranged for volunteers to weed and water throughout the summer season, though Sandy and I returned often to assure the garden was weeded and cared for.
2016 marked the garden’s third season, and the first with a timed drip irrigation system that eliminates the difficulty of finding people to water. The Cross Roads House chef has been involved in selecting what we plant and volunteers have harvested lettuce, tomatoes, beans, squash, herbs, pumpkins, blueberries and carrots for fresh organic salads.
We have heard many wonderful stories about the garden. “Come look at what I planted,” kids have been heard excitedly shouting to others. We’ve received compliments about how pretty it is to look at during meals in the dining room. Gardens restore the soul, we’ve been told.
Still, I wasn’t sure we were really making a difference until Sandy and I received an email this year from Dan Mitchell, Cross Roads House director of operations, after closing up the garden for the season.
“Tossed salads at most shelters are a luxury; at Cross Road House, it’s a daily part of the menu,” he wrote. “Please know your efforts and hard work are very much appreciated. We are lucky to have both of you at CRH, and we hope you continue to be a part of this for many years. Thank you. Thank you!!”
The project has grown thanks to the contributions of others. Timberland’s community outreach team built a permanent storage structure and have helped weed as well. Eagle scouts have built a bench and laid woodchips all around the beds. Sandy and I added two beds for tomato and blueberry plants.
The garden educates and uplifts the residents as they observe the plants grow and eat the harvest. They also feel cared for by others during a difficult time in their lives.