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Hartford Residents Getting Themselves Back To The Garden

Rick Green

August 21, 2009

rice farmer from the mountains of Myanmar who spoke no English and a crusty Republican who gave me a handful of blackberries.

In the garden, of course.

There are 15 community gardens in Hartford supervised by the Knox Parks Foundation. Across the country, in a burgeoning movement transforming urban neighborhoods and vacant lots there are perhaps as many as 20,000 gardens.

Hartford's potential is right here, in the garden out back.

With a little more time, I would have spoken with the Cuban man about how he has grown such impressive eggplants during this rainy summer, or the Puerto Ricans and their tropical crops and the Somalis, who have found refuge in a once-forlorn lot on Affleck Street.

This year, Knox's city gardens are bursting, with more than 300 plots, where about 260 families, from all over the world, grow vegetables. Were there more space, they'd have even more.

"I grow pumpkins, collard greens, callaloo. We have butter beans. We have tomatoes, scallions and squash," Cecil Walker told me as we passed through a rickety gate and into his plot behind the Unitarian Church off Bloomfield Avenue.

Here in this unofficial West Indian garden where green thumbs such as Walker and James Wilks use only long machetes to cut, weed and till the leafy callaloo plant, similar to spinach, is king. Look up at the trees around this enclave and one could imagine a Jamaican boy working on his father's farm, as Walker does.

"It just makes you happy," Walker, 63, explained. "You come to your garden, you keep all your stress out. I'm here every day."

In the garden, nobody really cares what you look like, what your job is or what your politics are. It's neutral turf for those who don't mind getting their hands dirty.

"These little pockets are just like oases. It's just refreshing. It's also for the camaraderie and the bonding and the learning," Charmaine Craig, garden manager for Knox Parks, told me. "It's a very diverse group, ethnic-wise and gardening-style-wise."

This summer, the shared gardening experience is flourishing in Hartford, albeit with the usual crop of nocturnal produce thieves. The community garden idea seems to work, whatever your politics and beliefs. The price is about $25 for a plot. Seeds are free from the folks at Knox Parks. If you don't do your weeding, you won't be asked back.

For some gardeners, it is a reaction to food systems controlled by corporations. I also saw a man who hustles a crop to sell on a street corner and people who must garden because they don't have enough to eat. Many, though, merely want to work the soil and grow something.

"I've developed more friendships out of this than in politics," a sweaty Mike McGarry told me early one morning this week at the Niles Street garden.

He was pulling weeds near his succulent raspberries and cleaning up for the annual community garden tour last night.

"I bike in. I walk around a little bit. Then I do one or two garden jobs and I feel good and I go home," said the affable McGarry, a self-described social conservative who chairs Hartford's Republican town committee.

"I bring home fresh mint for my tea," he said. "I go to Moe's and I bring them flowers and they give me coffee."

On South Marshall Street I met up with a young Catholic priest from Myanmar who took me to the nearby garden on Laurel Street tended by some of the dozens of refugee families from his country who have settled in Hartford over the past year.

"All this has been very helpful for them," the Rev. Daniel Akho said while nearby, 64-year-old Pyi Kyaw, a rice farmer in Myanmar, worked among the corn, cucumbers and beans. "They've got fresh food."

It could be that simple.

If you want to glimpse the potential of Hartford and of all the fascinating people who live in this city go back to the garden.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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