A Community Driven Dreamscape: South Burlington Community Gardens

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Thursday September 05, 2013

The air was light and a thyme-scented breeze washed over the lush gardens. Who could ask for a more Edenesque place to spend a late August morning, standing in fertile soil, among chest high tomato plants and neck high ruby cannas? Perhaps you are wondering where to find such paradise. It’s closer than you might think: the South Burlington Community Gardens located at the corner of Dorset and Swift Streets, near the Vermont National Country Club. 

Spade in hand, Jan Desarno, president of the Burlington Garden Club, has volunteered at the gardens since their inception in 2000. “Please, spread the word,” she said, as we stood under the tree-branched archway leading to the gardens. Jan works in the section of the gardens that includes plots designated for children and another for grandparents. When not busy tending to them, you can find her trimming her way through the butterfly and pollinator gardens, or visiting the All American Selections – a variety of award winning flowers and vegetation. But wait, there’s more: why not venture inside the Abenaki Wigwam, or enjoy a picnic in one of the wood pavilions? 

The National Gardening Association, which moved from the current Cairn’s Arena site to the Dorset Street location in 2002 and whose role was to develop the area as a natural preserve, moved to Williston this past winter. According to Jan, the gardeners lost three volunteers in the move, leaving them with only five to care for the area. “We’re doing the work of twenty,” Jan said. Still, she maintains her vigor. For Jan, gardening is a form of therapy – it helps her arthritis. And, “I get to see my friends,” she said. Jan works in the gardens every Thursday, pulling weeds, spreading compost, and harvesting produce for the Chittenden County Food Shelf. She, along with the other volunteers, kneel in the soil, getting their hands dirty to help replenish the shelves of those who cannot afford to buy produce at the grocery store. Master gardener, and volunteer, Nancy Bell, has been working in the gardens for six years. Earth painted after a morning of picking the best of the greens, she was on her way to deliver a basket of joy to the food shelf.  Unfortunately, due to heavy rains this season, the food shelf has suffered. According to Jan, the volunteers have delivered only 50 pounds of food. If that sounds like a lot, it’s not. Last year, thanks to cooperative weather, they donated six hundred pounds.  

Master gardener and volunteer, Kate Mesaros, has worked in the gardens since 2006. “It’s fun to see the kids come through here,” she said, wiping sweat from her forehead. Lani Camilli, another master gardener, admits, “It’s a challenge to keep up with the weeds, but I like the company of other people.” 

Who does the heavy lifting? According to Jan, the parks and recreation department mows the grass, and pays for the mulch then drops it off, “but they don’t have the funds or manpower to spread it.” The gardeners are lucky to have the help of resident Paul Steinman. “He pounds in the stakes and pulls up the burdock,” Jan said. Still, a group of five is not enough. Jan’s plea to the community: “We don’t need money, we need volunteers.” 

Interestingly enough, as Jan and I spoke, a young woman from South Burlington approached us. “I’ve never been here before,” she said. “I’d like to bring my four-year old daughter.” Jan’s eyes glimmered, flitted back-and-forth, from me to the mother. “Yes,” Jan said. “We want people from all over to visit.” Jan encouraged her to have her daughter taste a tomato or two. “Really?” the mother said.  “Only the children,” Jan emphasized, reminding us that the produce is for the food shelter. Clapping, the mother bounced on her toes. “You just made my day.”

Another dozen or more plots are available for rent to both residents of South Burlington and other communities. But the gardens do not appear out of a void. According to resident and community gardener Betty Milizia, it took the combined efforts of both a “representative committee” and the city to make these plots a success. The committee was responsible for tasks, such as arranging for soil testing, and measuring and assigning plots to members. The city installed water lines, provided the mulch, and purchased a tiller and wheelbarrow. City Planner, Cathyann LeRose; Interim Deputy City Manager, Tom Hubbard, (then Recreation Department Director); Director of Public Works, Justin Rabidoux; and the parks maintenance staff represented the committee and gained the support of the city council. Each time you visit, you are likely to see someone bent over, digging up stubborn roots, or snapping off a cherry tomato from its vine. But the members of these gardens do not always keep their heads low in their individual Edens, separated from their neighbor gardeners in their twenty-by-twenty square section of earth. They come together, especially in time of need. 

Dorothy Singer, who preferred to be called Tay, was a member of the original gardens at the Cairns Arena site. At the turn of the decade, when they moved to the present location, she started cultivating a new plot. Sadly, she recently passed away. Betty attributes her own gardening success to Tay: “She was willing to share her extensive gardening knowledge with less experienced gardeners.” Since Tay’s passing, Betty, and other gardeners, have tilled her plot, and planted various flowers and vegetables. A vibrant spray of oranges, reds, and yellows grace Tay’s garden. The soil is rich with mulch and the scent of August. But a simple description does not suffice. To touch the forgiving vines and smell the sage spritzed and potato infused earth is to experience this community driven dreamscape.

For more information on the South Burlington Community Gardens, go to their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/SoBurlCommGardens.

SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor