How we built a stunningly beautiful community garden in 100 days
When I think back to how we decided to build a first community garden in Newport, it seems that it really began at the moment Mrs. O took the microphone at Aquidneck Community Table’s second Food Summit in 2015.
The group of people gathered had just watched Ron Finley's TED Talk and now we were talking about growing more food on our island, especially to make it available to folks who didn't have enough fresh produce in their diets. Newport didn't have any community gardens at the time, but it did have several food deserts, and Mrs. O had valiantly championed a school garden in one of them at the Middle School where she has taught for many years. She built and maintains a garden for her students without funding or support from the increasingly strapped Newport school system, and that winter a broken ankle had left her unable to keep up with winterizing or getting ready for spring planting.
When she took the microphone and started talking, her accumulated frustrations released as tears. Suddenly the tone of conversation shifted from the abstract as we all felt her struggle and her great heart, and that's the moment that this community decided to get in the garden game.
We held a meeting in October at a private school with a gorgeous garden and got excited about the possibilities. We all took home an assignment so that when we met again in February we had a list of people who could help us and a list of possible locations. At the top was a perfect spot in downtown that Nikki, our volunteer garden designer, had wanted for a garden for years, but as she pointed out "Michelle Obama wasn't in the White House then" and it didn't happen. Apparently, the time was now right because suddenly we had a project in hand that people wanted to know about. Newport Historical Society, owners of that perfect location at Great Friends Meeting House, told us that if we could find the funds for our proposed design we could build the garden.
Thus began our wild ride. This was a project people wanted to help with. We had a fundraising party and the joint was jammed. We went to local businesses and asked for sponsorships, and just about everyone said yes. We wrote a couple of grant applications and were funded. Newspapers asked to interview us. We had more than enough volunteers for both our build days. Suppliers and contractors gave us materials at close to cost, and then showed up to help us build. We were racing to keep up with offers and interest and community support. By mid May there were 23 beautiful garden beds to allocate to more than 45 people who asked to rent them. (That was the hard part.)
That was back in May, and now, in August, sunflowers are above my head and tomatoes and zucchini are growing through the fence. Last week I spent a couple of hours watering at the end of a business day. It took a while, but I didn't mind because about every ten minutes a passerby would stop to ask a question or tell me how delighted they were to walk by the garden on their way home. "It makes me smile every time I see it," said one older gentleman. Me too.
Bevan Linsley is the project director of Aquidneck Community Table, a new organization recently formed by the merging of Aquidneck Growers' Market, which she has managed for the past six years; Sustainable Aquidneck and the Island Commons Food Initiative. She is excited by the work of weaving together the separate parts of the island's food system to achieve a unified whole.