A very green small town: Three community gardens thrive in Turners Falls – The Recorder


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In many cities and towns, people with little or no home gardening space benefit from access to community garden plots. But not many small towns have three community gardens, as does Turners Falls.The Great Falls Community Garden has about 30 plots on two sites: one on the corner of 4th and L Streets, and the other on the corner of 3rd and L. And overlooking the Connecticut River, the Unity Park Community Garden co-exists with a skate park and a playground.“We provide space for people to grow food and flowers,” said Suzette Snow-Cobb, a founder and coordinator of the two Great Falls sites. “We also grow produce for donation to the food pantry, and plant pollinator-attracting flower gardens along each lot.”The land at 4th and L is privately owned. “There was a building,” said Snow-Cobb, “but it burned down about 40 years ago. We brought in soil and used bricks to create raised beds.” Gardeners help pay property taxes, foot the water bill, and are responsible for keeping the sidewalk clear of snow.The creation of brick-bordered beds resulted in such lovely visuals that the garden received a 1998 award from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in the category of Most Beautiful Garden.The 3rd and L site sits on land owned by the Franklin County Regional Housing Authority. “After they purchased the land,” explained Snow-Cobb, “the development plan didn’t pan out. We have a verbal agreement on a year-to-year basis, as long as we keep it well-tended and offer garden plots to FCRHA tenants.”Gardeners paid to install water access and are responsible for water bills, roughly $30 to $50 per year. Snow-Cobb said that all participants live within Montague (most from Turners Falls), and represent a wide range of ages and backgrounds.Member Janel Nockleby looks forward to each growing season. “The chives are already up and delicious, and I can’t wait to have all the little volunteer cilantros come back.”Nockleby, the visitor services supervisor at the Great Falls Discovery Center, grows perennial herbs, including sage, oregano, lavender, and tarragon, “the reliable ones.” She loves to see how tall the sunflowers grow each year and to watch the resulting bird activity.Joan Bulzacchelli and her partner Paul are tending their Great Falls plot for a second year. “In growing our own food, we appreciate the work that goes into eating healthier and taking better care of our environment,” said Bulzacchelli. “There are mental health benefits from being in nature — even if it’s a 3’ x 6’ plot. And I love the flavor of better quality ingredients.”Edite Cunha grows mainly flowers at home due to poor soil quality. “I also grow food at home in a small raised bed and in pots, but on a tiny scale,” said Cunha. “It’s nice to be able to spread out a bit in the [3rd Street] community garden.”Cunha’s grandchildren live nearby and love sharing potatoes grown in their grandmother’s plot. “I also plant a lot of kale, chard, and pole beans,” said Cunha, a writer, artist, teacher, and activist. “Some of my family members will have their own plot this year at the 4th Street site. I love the community aspect.”When you meet someone who grows loads of basil, your first thought might be of pesto. In Mohsen Jalali’s case, though, a massive basil crop means something different, and he’s grateful for his plot, which allows him to grow the herb in quantity.In his natal land of Iran, basil — along with parsley, mint, scallions, and radishes — becomes a favorite side-dish when paired with pasta. “I don’t eat just little bits of these herbs,” said Jalali. “And they must be eaten raw! Once you cook them, they lose their character.”Jalali combines large amounts of herbs and puts the mixture on hot pasta. “I could eat baskets of it,” he said. “It’s delicious.” He starts several varieties of basil at home by seed, and the resulting plants take up about half of his plot. Jalali admitted that if he had five times the space, he’d grow even more basil.A UMass grad student, Jalali teaches political science, but while growing up in Iran, he lived on a farm and milked cows daily by hand. “My mom milked the cows in the morning, and I did the 10 p.m. milking.” His family grew pumpkins, tomatoes, and melons for sale at a local farmers’ market. They also grew wheat, and produced straw for use with the animals.When Jalali arrived in the U.S. about 10 years ago, in his late twenties, he learned that the Iranian economic equation of expensive meat and affordable vegetables was reversed in the U.S. “Here, meat is less costly, but the price of fresh foods is steep.”Another difference Jalali noticed in the U.S. was the variety of foods. “In Iran, we had maybe two types of pasta, and one type of yogurt. Here, it’s fifty kinds of this and a hundred kinds of that.”A few blocks east of the L Street plots, the people who oversee the town’s third community garden work to provide fresh, nutritious food to some of the many Americans facing food insecurity in a land of opulence. Annie Levine, co-coordinator of the Unity Park Community Garden, says that when the town re-did the park a dozen years ago, the community block grant stipulated that locals have some say. “People requested a community garden,” said Levine.The Unity Park space has 38 plots. “We have six handicapped-accessible standing beds, and the rest are raised beds,” Levine said. “We have about 25 members. The remaining plots are devoted to U-pick allotments.”Anyone can visit the garden and, while following clear signage, help themselves to strawberries, vegetables, and cut flowers. “We also have an herb and tea garden,” said Levine.In addition to helping to manage the community garden, Levine — who grew up thinking that “gardening” meant going to Home Depot for a few geraniums and some straw to tuck around the plants — now coordinates the Great Falls Farmers’ Market at Peskeomskut Park on Avenue A, for which she receives a small stipend.She’s also the driving force behind Great Falls Apple Corps, a volunteer position, which advocates for edible landscapes. “We’re committed to establishing edible food forests, including fruit trees in our downtown area,” said Levine, who’s the business manager for The Montague Reporter, as well as an academic tutor.In speaking with the people who keep gardening and community organizing humming in downtown Turners Falls, an old saying comes to mind: “If you want something to get done, ask a busy person.” Suzette Snow-Cobb, arguably the mother of community gardening in that town, also grows food in tiny plots outside her Avenue A apartment building. The window sills in her kitchen are jammed with burgeoning seedlings, and she’s no stranger to getting the whole family involved.“The kids helped when they were little,” she said of her three sons. “Well, [husband] Steve and I kind of made them do it. But I think they liked it. Mostly.” And Snow-Cobb’s father, Raymond Snow, got into the act as well, helping to process some of the garlic crop.In addition to garnering statewide attention, Snow-Cobb said she and her fellow community gardeners participate in a national program through Small Axe Peppers, a New York City-based hot sauce manufacturing company that purchases organically grown peppers produced in community gardens throughout the nation.The company, founded in 2014, has a mission to support community gardens. The Small Axe website notes that community gardens often depend “on unreliable grants, donations, and out-of-pocket expenses.” Through their program, Small Axe enables community gardeners to “grow peppers as a cash crop, which allows them to fund their vital social programming.”The company’s admiration for community gardens is apparent: “From high school students, to immigrants and refugees, to people who simply want to enjoy a shady cool green space, community gardens are places where people from all backgrounds and walks of life can come together.”That’s certainly happening in Turners Falls and, as the days warm up, so does the action in all three community gardens.Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and a founding member of Greenfield’s Pleasant Street Community Garden. She loves to hear from readers at [email protected]

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