Gardening, especially vegetable gardening, isn't just about the plants you grow. (Although nothing beats the flavor of a vine-ripened tomato or the crunchy joy of a just-picked cucumber.) Gardening also is about the people you meet and the things you learn. It's about community.
On an overcast day I visited the new 2½-acre community garden at East Meadow Farm--the horticulture center of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County in East Meadow, Long Island, New York. Once farmland, the tract now beckons to the past on a busy avenue, just blocks from traffic-clogged parkways and surrounded by Cape Cods, split-levels and ranch houses.
But all that fades when you enter the garden. What you see is growing proof that if you build it, they will come. In the spring Master Gardeners and volunteers built 40 raised cedar beds, each measuring 5 x 20 feet and sitting in full sun. Plans call for 20 more beds next year.
Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash lead the parade of crops. Other entries run from cucuzz to kohlrabi, and pole beans to pumpkins.
Colorful tomato cages are a common sight. Pretty as well as practical, they offer robust plants needed support. Meanwhile, chicken wire and black netting are used as fencing. And baby carrots thrive under clear plastic soda bottle cloches.
What links the compost-enriched, organically tended plots is enthusiasm, the sort expressed by Adrienne Friedson, who left her house six years ago and moved into a co-op. "This is my garden," she says as she beams at her tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, beets, eggplants, spaghetti squash and corn.
"Look," she says. "This flower is going to be a watermelon." She pauses. "My watermelon."
Nearby 1½-year-old Ella Balbo watches from her stroller as her mom, Lisa, waters the two plots she shares with her own mother. They grow watermelon, cantaloupe and pumpkins in one bed, and grape tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, eggplants and Swiss chard in the other.
"This is my first real garden," confides Lisa. "I live just two blocks away, and the garden is like an extension of the neighborhood. Someone will say, 'I'm going out of town this weekend, will you water for me?' It's like, 'I'll water for you today if you'll water for me tomorrow.' There's that sense of being neighbors in the garden."
Bob Reed is everybody's neighbor. Bob, who was one of my Master Gardener classmates years ago, maintains two beds side by side with his adult daughter. "I always get carried away," he says. 'Roma', 'Goliath', 'Golden Pear' and 'Early Girl' tomatoes along with cucumbers, onions and parsley occupy one bed. The other bed holds eggplant, zucchini, pole beans and kohlrabi.
"It's interesting to see everyone's idea of what and how to grow," he says. "You think I have tomatoes, you should look in some of these beds."
Bob believes in growing upwards. He set up a bamboo trellis for cucumbers. As the cucumbers grow, they dangle through the netting and are easy to pick. Pole beans already inch up the 7-foot towers he fashions from 2 x 2s and aluminum strips.
"It's nice when people ask you questions and you can share your knowledge and experience," he says as he strolls along the beds with Bonnie Klein, the extension's full-time community educator. She checks the garden daily for insect and disease problems.
Gardener Mary Quinn has a question: What's eating her cherry tomatoes? An insect, maybe a caterpillar, is the consensus. "You might pinch off some of these lower leaves so you get better air circulation and avoid fungal diseases," Bonnie says as she pulls off a tiny green tomato for further examination.
Mary and her 13-year-old daughter, Amelia, were excited when they noticed the community garden being built. "We have a small plot at home, but there's not a lot of direct sun, so there are many things I can't grow," Mary says. "Besides, in my own backyard I don't have Master Gardeners who can answer questions. I asked a Master Gardener about some leaves that were turning yellow, and she suggested I fertilize with fish emulsion before it got hot. That's new for me--and it worked!"
Gardening often is solitary, Mary says. "But here it's also social. You meet seniors and young mothers, and three ladies share a transcendental garden. I've been gardening for 15 years, but here I'm learning new ways of doing things."
She grins. "Like fish emulsion."