Volunteers reimagine a space and youth learn to grow healthy produce

  • Gardener with raddish

It was a decrepit, weed-choked backyard space in the middle of town. To Lisa Ford, UNH Extension Nutrition Connections teacher, “It looked like an impossible site — the size, the condition, the bittersweet — and there was no water access.”

But with assistance from a team of dedicated Extension Master Gardener interns, a small patch of land behind the Pemi Youth Center in Plymouth has become a vibrant garden of raised beds producing fresh food and flowers.

Ford identified the site and, after several attempts to create a garden in this space by herself, she pitched it as an idea to the Master Gardener interns — volunteers who receive training from Extension and complete service projects in their communities.

Planning began over Zoom calls in 2020 and then efforts commenced to transform the site.

It Takes a Village

A significant aspect of this project’s success has been the commitment from the core Master Gardener intern team of Will Crawford, Helen Ingalls, Loren McCabe and Linda Pare, as well as community members who have graciously donated their time and materials.

A local businessman brought over his backhoe and dug up the lot, including those pesky invasive bittersweet roots. Volunteers cleared the lot of errant roof shingles and old propane tanks. They painted the building’s back wall, added shutters to the windows, installed a water line, built raised beds with four-by-four posts and constructed a fence.

Then, came the planting.

  • Gardeners harvesting squash
Gardening Anywhere and Everywhere

The Pemi Youth Center provides a safe and welcoming after-school space for youth, ages 10-17, at no cost to families. It’s located in a remodeled firehouse on Main Street and staff offer help with homework, lead a variety of fun projects and empowerment activities and serve meals, which now include fruits, vegetables and herbs that the youth help plant, care for and harvest.

These children and teenagers have grown tomatoes, basil, oregano and peppers for pizza. They’ve experimented with pumpkins, kale, watermelons, broccoli, cucumbers and zucchini. No matter the crop, each planting brings with it lessons about patience and responsibility.

“We like to have them involved in decision-making — it’s important to listen to the kids, to provide a sense of purpose, belonging and independence,” says Ford, who teaches the kids how to incorporate these foods into nutritious meals.

The Pemi Youth Center’s backyard is an example of how creativity and energy can be harnessed to turn a vision into a reality.

It’s a garden in the middle of the town; it’s not in a big open space, not in a park. It has a potential for a lot of different uses,” Ford says.

The youth center’s motto is “Love grows here.” With Extension’s help, now food does as well.

This collaborative effort was led by Extension’s Nutrition Connections Teacher Lisa Ford, Master Gardener Coordinator for Grafton County Judith Hull, Master Gardener Program Manager Ruth Smith and Pemi Youth Center Executive Director Melina Baker. The garden was made possible by several monetary gifts from individuals and donations from local businesses including loam, compost, woodchips and perennials.

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