NEWINGTON - In 2014, a few members of the Newington Senior and Disabled Center tried their hands at gardening. Four years and many tomatoes later, the Giving Garden has taken on a life of its own.
More than a dozen ladies spent a recent morning shoveling soil into several new raised beds, tall enough for them to reach without any advanced contortionist technique. They harvested giant green onions that had already sprouted, cleaning and bundling them into perfect portion sizes for picking.
The Newington Food Bank is the final resting place of hundreds of pounds of produce coming out of the garden this season, before it ends up in the kitchens and bodies of residents who struggle to purchase groceries on their own. This is all due to the meticulous planning, planting and picking of volunteers, who say they take as much joy from the garden as it reaps goods.
“Once everything is growing this is such a peaceful, wonderful place,” garden coordinator Helena Thomson said, her sparkling eyes falling on a pair of cutters, which don’t sit idle for long in this place.
Thomson was among that core group of volunteers who have been at it since the beginning, when the center used grant money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Jefferson House to start their new venture.
“Helena is really the core of the garden,” Senior Center Director Dianne Stone pointed out. “During the dead of winter, when we forget we have a garden outside, she is thinking about the garden.”
That’s why the Master Gardener was chosen as the center’s Wall of Honor recipient at a recent ceremony celebrating the work of volunteers. She would never reveal this accolade, however, in regular conversation. In fact, Thomson used her award speech to recruit more volunteers.
“Everybody has a different strength,” she said of her team. There’s Sheila, who excels in design, and is teaching the others how to arrange different herbs around one another.
Then there’s Sylvia, an expert in growing perennials - the plants that when treated with enough love, care and water, return again year after year. Connie had the technical know-how to install an electric fence to keep critters away. She also sprays for insects.
Fay Peters takes the title of Recorder - cognizant that 550 pounds of produce came out of last year’s garden.
“Right now I’m recording what we’re planting and when we’re planting it,” said Peters, who weighs each plant’s harvest to compare it to others and past seasons.
Blueberries were counted by the pound last year - a surprise to those who planted the crop for the first time. Then there are the three sisters - corn, squash and beans - the first of which is new this year.
Pramila Patel dug up weeds along the perimeter of the backyard fence to make way for the stalky yellow vegetable, likely to be popular with late summer food pantry users.
Newington resident Tracy Nurse is new to the senior center and to the garden.
“I just retired last week,” she said. “I think it’s exciting to do new things. I just want to give back to my community.”
This is the second year in the garden for Linda McDonald, who is also in her second year in the University of Connecticut’s Master Gardener program. She has a lot of wise insight to share, but is mostly eager to pick up tips from fellow gardeners.
“It’s for a good cause and we have good camaraderie,” McDonald explained. “It helps build my knowledge as a home gardener and helps further my education and skills as a Master Gardener.”
The lessons learned through teamwork and experimenting give back to the Giving Garden, making it a self-sustaining volunteer enterprise.
“Staff really don’t play any part anymore,” Stone said. “It’s all volunteer-driven. People come with their ideas and it’s a way for them to exercise their creativity and passion, while helping the community.”
Newington Human Services staff and volunteers who facilitate the Food Bank bear witness to the garden’s impact on the community’s less fortunate residents.
“It has been an amazing partnership and resource for us,” Human Services Director Carol LaBrecque said. “People are so appreciative of those fresh, healthy options from the Giving Garden.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.