The Root of the Matter: SB Community Gardens

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Thursday May 31, 2012

Just past the commercial buildings and residential life along Dorset Street, community members can escape the everyday buzz and smell the roses or grow fresh tomatoes. This getaway is the Vermont Garden Park, a city-owned park available to the public, a portion of which is leased by the National Gardening Association (NGA).

In a long standing 20-year arrangement made with the former city manager, the National Gardening Association leases its land for $1. In return, the NGA was required to provide services to benefit the city: the community gardens was one of those services.

The NGA’s first community garden site—now Cairns Arena, which is also leased out for $1 a year—was arranged in 1995; community gardeners spent eight years amending soil and developing the plots before the NGA relocated the gardens further down on the corner of Dorset and Swift Street neighboring the Vermont National Country Club. This site is the Vermont Garden Park, formally known as the Vermont Community Botanical Garden which was run by a range of people from SB residents, the Burlington Garden Club, and members of the NGA. The city asked if the NGA could step in to finish its development, and now NGA is currently leasing the building for administrative offices and the 14 acres of land.
With over 100 city-owned acres, The Vermont Garden Park preserves open space, creates and maintains community gardens, and creates self-guided trails in the nature park—friendly for all ages, according to the NGA. Already, there are ten demonstration gardens, and there will be more in the making; a few of the services are the American Cottage Gardens—nested right next to the NGA administrative building, a children’s garden, about 40 plots (accounting for full and half plots), and green space for fundraising events. The most recent project is the Abenaki Garden where the NGA set up a teepee and plans to garden crops that reflect the Abenaki Culture. Additionally, grown produce has been donated to the Burlington Food Shelf. The culmination of these gardens would make up The Center for Plant-Based Education.

“It’s [community gardens] a nice chance for people to meet other people and share experiences and information,” said Karen Whitby, active gardener and member of the SB Community Gardeners Association.

That is how she met fellow SBCG member Bronwyn Dunne; both Whitby and Dunne live next to the community gardens and have seen its growth. The site attracts diverse demographics—seniors, young couples, seasoned and novice gardeners, handicapped persons (there are a few handicap-allotted spots), ex-farmers, engineers, and members of the Burlington Garden Club among others.

While the gardeners shared the experience of community-building, they also experienced the community gardens being moved once again last year, this time within the Vermont Garden Park. Afterward, the University of Vermont and the US Department of Agriculture tested the soil and found that the current site had more clay soil than the last site. It takes time to amend the soil—applying several additives—to get the soil just right, Whitby said.

As a result, moving from plot to plot has proven quite difficult for gardeners. Whitby, Dunne, and a group of other gardeners took initiative and formed the SB Community Gardeners Association.

“We established the SB Community Gardeners Association around November 2011 because we felt that there were 37 plots and that we probably should have a committee to represent the interest of the community gardeners based on the fact that we were moved from the original site,” Whitby said.

The group would serve as a bridge of communication between the community gardeners, the city, and the NGA.

“We can discuss this with the City of SB and continue to dialogue with NGA that our position is that we should stay where we are, but have some additional help from the city of SB who is actually our overseer,” Dunne said.

If there is potential for another relocation, the SBCG would take its stance and present it to the City Council. Likewise, City Manager Sandy Miller said any changes to the NGA’s lease will be the City Council’s decision.

Susan Littlefield, Horticulturalist Editor for NGA, has been a liaison between the community gardeners and the NGA. While the NGA tries its best to provide resources for the best gardening experience, the NGA is required to follow the lease agreement set out by the city, Littlefield said. Therefore, based on the SB’s needs for future development, the site during the period between 2012-2015, will need to be relocated. It will move just off of the 14 acre garden park, but it will still be within the 100 parcel of land crossing into Wheeler Park.

“We have this lease agreement with a development plan in it and that’s the legally binding agreement between NGA and the city of SB, and we’re required to follow it,” Littlefield said.

The current focus is opening the public’s eyes to the importance the nature park and the opportunities the open resource brings to the city. With good soil and a stable environment, the gardens play a major role in the city’s formation of a Sustainable Agriculture Committee, Elizabeth Milizia, Secretary of the SB Land Trust, said.

Sustainable agriculture is one of the reasons South Burlington is undergoing the beginning stages of interim-zoning. With this in mind, community gardens could play a  role in the future of SB.

Food education is another vital function of the gardens, Dunne said. Culinary idol Alice Waters started a trend by educating children to produce and cook their own food in a school in California. SB could offer this information, she added.

“Children need to see the connection between how food is grown and how it makes it to the table,” Whitby said.

There are an estimated 18,000 community gardens throughout the United States and Canada, according to the American Community Gardens Association. The Vermont Community Garden Network counts 11 in Burlington. Successful work at the Vermont Garden Park could likely increase the number of gardens in SB as well, Milizia said.

“We feel like it can be a model garden for many community gardens for the city of SB,” Whitby said.

The entire 100 acre parcel is a resource open to the public and is a great place to get out and “enjoy some nature,” Littlefield said.

 Anyone interested in participating in community gardening activities or would like to acquire a plot, contact the NGA or find SB Community Gardeners on Facebook.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent