Friday, June 12, 2009

City Food Gardens: Everything's Coming Up Tomatoes

A teenage tomato: a vision of the future?
Photos by Mars Vilaubi

This morning I stumbled on something that utterly made my day. I was leaving a routine appointment at North Adams Regional Hospital, just up the hill from Storey's offices at MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). I passed a man working on a newly planted, triangle-shaped raised bed, perhaps 18 inches high and 10 feet on a side, by one of the administration buildings.

I would have walked obliviously by, assuming it was a typical look-alike flower bed with petunias et al., but I happened to overhear a hospital employee inquiring if she could hire the man to build a similar structure at her home. Glancing at the raised bed, I saw in the center, of all things, a young tomato plant. Around the edges were the coin-shaped leaves of nasturtiums, interspersed with lettuce, and almost invisible throughout were the frail ferny sprouts of carrots.

Not a generic flower bed at all but a food-producing garden!

The "hospital" bed

When I marveled, the man working on it, Bob Levesque (in a polo shirt sporting the hospital logo), said, "We're doing these all over town." It turned out that six or seven food gardens with tomatoes, peppers, and more will replace standard flower beds throughout downtown North Adams, with the mayor's approval.

The vegetable gardens will belong to the community, Bob said. What happens at harvest time? He shrugged. "We'll see. If you're hungry you can pick a tomato."

And who is the "we" Bob is part of? It's an organization called REACH for Community Health, the community health education department of the hospital, dedicated to improving the health and wellness of residents of our area. REACH is active in childbirth education, tobacco awareness, various types of health screenings, and so on. But providing free, healthy, local food is a new dimension of health education.

A quick portrait is in order. Nestled in the Berkshire mountains, North Adams is a city of old brick textile mills at the meeting of the north and south branches of the Hoosic River (which then flows to the Hudson). One hundred years ago it was an industrious beehive, served by railroad, with dozens of factories, shops, and hotels, but when the car supplanted the train, it became a backwater. Thirty years ago it was in serious decay after the largest factory left town, stranding 1,500 workers. Then, ten years ago, MASS MoCA was born in that same factory's abandoned buildings, bringing amazing art and beginning a citywide renaissance and transformation that continues today. (And, I should add, the flower beds throughout town are always gorgeous.)

I was pretty thunderstruck by Bob's concept. This epitomizes and expands a major, accelerating change we've observed at Storey over the past few years: gardeners and homeowners turning en masse from flowers to vegetables. (Even the woman talking to Bob wanted to put in herbs, not flowers.)

But to have towns and cities making this change, too — turning from sheer aesthetics to food production, asking for no return or profit, accepting all the risks involved — is thrilling. I suspect North Adams is not alone, and I'll gather more data on this as summer progresses, so feel free to send me your anecdotes.

If Bob had his druthers, he would turn much of the hospital's swaths of lawn into vegetable gardens, to avoid mowing and use the earth more productively.

Maybe someday. To me, communities growing food is a step forward (or is it back?) to sustainability and self-sufficiency and one more example of how this economic crisis is setting us on a healthier path.

Deb Burns, Acquiring Editor for Animal, Farming and Equestrian Topics


Frances said...

This is the coolest news I've heard all week -- maybe even all spring! Thanks for the excellent sleuthing.

Alethea Morrison, Storey Creative Director said...

This is such a brilliant, health-affirming idea. I hope people take advantage of the harvest.

Deb Burns said...

The local paper, the North Adams Transcript, saw this post and did a follow-up story, speaking to an additional person -- -- and I want to correct and clarify my information. The triangular vegetable bed at the hospital is considered a test garden, and it's the only one planned for the immediate future. Its harvest will be donated, and is not free for the picking after all. If it's a success maybe it will be a model for other city gardens ... here and anywhere there's space, interest, and need.

Unknown said...

Community gardens are such a great idea! I sent this blog post to my parents (who are gardeners themselves) who live in Chelsmford, MA. Turns out the town has started a community garden as well!

The local newspaper prints weekly chronicles on the garden developments. For more information go here:

Deb Burns said...

ABC News carried the following story on Buckingham Palace's brand-new organic vegetable garden, inspired by the Obamas' garden. It seems amazing that the palace had a 40-acre garden without any vegetables (especially since Prince Charles is an organic gardener), but it's just one more example of how far this world has spun away from simple solutions.