Projects make produce personal
One thing I’ve learned since becoming a gardener: Once people know you have a garden, they want to tell you all about their gardens.
Shortly after I wrote a column about all the fresh produce I’m getting from my small community garden, I was contacted by a 66-year-old Colonie resident named Joe Savoie.
About seven years ago, Savoie purchased the vacant lot across the street from his tidy suburban home at auction for $7,000. At that time, the property was wild and overgrown — “a jungle,” Savoie told me. His plan: Clear it and build.
But the plan hit a snag. Rather than leave the lot in a state of dishevelment, he decided to start a garden.
Now in its third year, the garden feeds Savoie, his wife and his 28-year-old son, Paul, as well as eight local families. In exchange for $100, these families receive a tantalizing variety of organic vegetables and fruit — peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, beets, broccoli, watermelons, spinach, beans, corn, etc.
I was impressed with Savoie’s large and bountiful garden. But I was also struck by his vision. He is essentially running a small, community-supported agriculture program off Central Avenue, one of the Capital Region’s busiest corridors.
CSAs have become more common in recent years and appeal to people who like the idea of eating fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, but don’t necessarily have the means or desire to maintain a garden. Typically run by farmers, CSAs invite people to purchase shares of the upcoming harvest; once produce becomes available, CSA members will begin receiving weekly packages of food.
“Everybody gets a little bit of everything,” Savoie told me, a hint of satisfaction in his voice.
Not long after I met Savoie, I visited Vale Urban Farm, a large neighborhood garden in a quiet corner of Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery.
The entire garden occupies about two-thirds of an acre. While 10-foot-by-10-foot plots are available to individuals, many of VUF’s volunteers help maintain one large garden and receive free vegetables in exchange for their labor. On the Friday morning I visited, several women worked quietly, weeding and planting fall crops.
Cathy Winter, VUF’s coordinator, told me the garden has drawn “a mix of people. Some know how to garden and some don’t.”
One of VUF’s less experienced gardeners is Sue Roberts, 56, who lives on nearby Waldorf Place.
“They provide everything,” Roberts explained. “If you’re not an experienced gardener, it’s perfect.”
I asked Roberts how she learned about VUF. She said she walks through the cemetery regularly, and that on one of her walks she took notice of the work going on in the garden. “I asked what was going on and they told me that the garden was open to the public,” she said.
That was all the encouragement Roberts needed. She decided to join.
“I’m saving money,” she said. “Organic vegetables are very expensive. I’m getting organic produce by working for it.”
The Vale Urban Farm does a couple of important things: It makes high-quality food available to an underserved neighborhood, and it also builds community.
“For anything to be successful on a larger social scale, people have to have a personal reason for doing it,” Winter told me.
Like Savoie’s garden, the VUF is a small CSA. Rather than ask members to purchase shares, it asks them to donate time. While the projects might appear to have little in common, they both share a spirit of creativity and innovation.
Not everyone would think to turn a vacant lot into a garden, and I suspect that even fewer would think to turn it into a CSA for friends and acquaintances. The VUF also reflects a certain “what if?” mentality: What if we took some of Vale Cemetery’s unused land and started a garden there? Would people be willing to help?
Thus far, the answer appears to be yes.
The VUF has about 30 volunteers and could clearly accommodate more.
Savoie gave much of the credit for his garden to his son, and so I got in touch with the younger Savoie, who is finishing his doctorate at the University at Albany. He told me he took up gardening after becoming depressed and taking a break from his studies.
“It sort of perked me back up,” he said.
I, too, have found that gardening can have that effect.
As I’ve said before, gardening is not for everyone.
But thanks to small, interesting projects such as Savoie’s CSA and the VUF, more people are discovering the pleasures of growing and eating locally grown food.
Will we see more of these types of projects in the future? I don’t know. But I’d like to think so.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at email@example.com. or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.