A Community Garden Takes Root

Community gardens provide food and friendship to a diverse group of Manchester residents

By Marjorie O’Leary, UNH Cooperative Extension Master Gardener 

Did you know there’s a grassroots effort underway to provide a greener, healthier environment for Manchester’s inner city residents?

Thanks to the efforts of the Rooting for Families Community Garden Collaborative, 59 families spend their summers tending vegetables and nurturing friendships with a diverse group of neighbors in three gardens in the Queen City. The result is healthier living and a greater sense of community in the surrounding areas.

“We have gardeners who grew up in small towns and missed producing their own food. We also have people who never grew anything before in their lives,” explains Izet Hamidovic, a volunteer and garden coordinator at the Pine Street community garden since 2000.

“This garden is like one big family,” says Hava Causevic. “When you’re here, you’re outside, you’re with people, you’re doing something. You feel happy.” An expert gardener, Causevic is always willing to share her knowledge of planting and seed saving with newcomers at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Manchester garden.

“The greatest value of this garden is that it’s gardenbringing the community together,” says Ken Laquire, site coordinator of the Manchester Community College garden and construction lead for all three sites. “We would never have met the people we see here without it.”

Turning vacant lots into welcoming green spaces

Mary Tebo Davis, a natural resources field specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension since 1996, was instrumental in creating the Rooting for Families Community Garden Collaborative.

“It began in 1997 with Ron Johnson, former Deputy Director of the Manchester Parks and Recreation Department,” she says. “Ron and I drove around the city looking at vacant lots where we could create more functional green spaces for residents. We were able to renovate a small section of Sheridan Emmett Park on Pine Street, and working with many partners, created Manchester’s first community garden. The collaboration of partners and gardens continued to grow over time.”

“Immediately, all the space was filled and we had a waiting list,” adds Hamidovic. “In 2003, we added beds to accommodate additional families.”

At the same time, Hamidovic took a position with The Way Home, a non-profit agency dedicated to helping homeless families find safe and affordable housing. His job includes managing the collaborative gardens. He now sees firsthand how the garden makes a big difference in the lives of the homeless families he meets through his work. “You can’t believe how excited people get when they see the first vegetables they grew all by themselves,” he says.

A thriving network

One challenge of gardening in a city environment is that many low-income residents don’t have transportation. “We’re constantly looking for creative ways to bring gardens closer to people with limited transportation, either by expanding existing gardens or finding new sites on bus routes,” says Tebo Davis.

In 2012, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and Manchester Community College both joined the Rooting for Families Collaborative and designated areas for new gardens on their campuses, which meant the program could significantly expand.

In planning the two new gardens, the collaborative brought in members from the New Hampshire permaculture community to help with a design that included individual beds for local families surrounded by edible forest gardens and an ecologically friendly orchard. The families planted their first crops in 2014, and the fruit trees began to produce in 2015. “Today, we have 59 families and 190 people, altogether, working in the three gardens,” reports Hamidovic.

Garden therapy

The gardens are more than sources of fresh, healthy food and camaraderie, they are also therapeutic. Many of the Pine Street gardeners are Bosnian refugees who lost someone during the war. “They go to the garden to sit and share similar experiences. They all say, ‘I can’t wait ‘til spring to go there,’” says Hamidovic. He spoke from his own experience as a cancer survivor. “When they told me I wasn’t going to make it, I went to the garden. It helped me through that bad time. And look, I’m still here.”

Causevic was disabled after an accident in 2007. “The garden saved me,” she says. “When I couldn’t work, it was something I could still do. It was a reason to get outside and see people.”

Laquire, who grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, is a disabled veteran with 17 years of service. In 2014, he volunteered to build raised beds for the Manchester Community College garden and is now the site coordinator and oversees construction projects for all of the gardens. He spends between 600 and 700 hours in the MCC garden each summer. “When I had to stop working due to nerve damage, working in the garden gave me something to do. It keeps me going,” he says.

love gardenGrowing community

Volunteers play a critical role in preparing the garden sites and constructing the beds. In addition to the gardeners themselves, various groups have also volunteered their assistance. These include students from both Manchester and Great Bay Community Colleges, UNH Cooperative Extension volunteers, as well as local companies.

Causevic, who is from Bosnia, described working with gardeners from many different cultures. “We have Asian, African American and Ukrainian people who come to the garden,” she says. “We don’t always speak the same language, so I show them how to plant, when to pick, whatever they need to know. When you see how to do something, you understand. We have people from all over the world and we learn from each other.”

Gardens for the future

As the third project in the Rooting for Families Collaborative, the Manchester Community College site benefits from the experience gained in the previous two gardens. The first phase of the new design, completed last year, features planting areas tailored to the needs of all types of gardeners, including easily accessible raised beds. It also includes seating constructed by the welding students from the community college. 

The MCC garden is also the first garden where permaculture was fully incorporated into its design and practices. “Permaculture uses nature as its guide - mimicking the patterns and interconnections found within ecosystems,” Tebo Davis explains. Within the design there is an orchard spiral that includes layering of edible plants beneath the fruit trees. “The bayberry shrubs and strawberry groundcover are native plants that not only provide for people and pollinators but also fix nitrogen in the soil making it available for the trees, slow and filter water while protecting and building soil. This is an example of how permaculture stacks functions and supports all forms of life. A permaculture practice used in the gardens includes building soil through ‘sheet mulching,’ using onsite compost such as grass clippings and leaves, blanketed with leftover cardboard, and then covered with a layer woodchips from local trees.”

Our place in the ecosystem

Izet includes people as an important part of the permaculture equation. “For example, you don’t plant just any trees in the landscape just because they look nice. Instead, you plant fruit trees and everyone is welcome to help themselves to the fruit.” This spiral-patterned orchard is lined with edible trees and plants and in the center creates a more private, contemplative “outdoor room” where an individual can take in nature around them. Outdoor rooms are found throughout the MCC garden to accommodate family gatherings where they can share and eat the food they have grown.

Plans underway for this summer in MCC’s largest of the outdoor rooms include an outdoor kitchen for community celebrations and teaching. This same space will also serve as a lectern for outdoor classes and meetings. At this Community garden everything has more than one purpose. “When we’re finished working on it, the MCC garden will be a true community gathering place where people can hold events that bring even more people together,” summarizes Laquire.

A fourth community garden is planned for Manchester’s Hollows Neighborhood in 2016. Families in Transition, the newest member of the Rooting for Families collaborative has developed a permaculture-based community garden that will provide food for its shelter and individual garden beds for families in the neighborhood. As with the other three gardens, it is expected that the beds will be full as soon as they are available. This means Rooting for Families will be looking for their next opportunity to green a Manchester neighborhood.

manchesterOf course, it takes more than one type of green to build a community. Due to the grassroots nature of Rooting for Families, the collaborative depends on grants from neighborhood partners to build and maintain each site. Many of the low-income residents who take advantage of the gardens lack the resources to make the most of the opportunity. “There are never enough wheelbarrows and garden tools to go around, so the gardeners have to wait their turn,” Tebo Davis explains. Donations for this purpose are always welcome, in any amount.

To make a donation or request a community garden space contact Izet Hamidovic at Izet@thewayhomenh.org or (603) 627-3491 x210. If you would like to learn more about how you can help the collaborative, contact Mary Tebo Davis, UNH Cooperative Extension at mary.tebo@unh.edu or (603) 641-6060.

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