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Article Published May 3, 2016

Clinton Community Garden Seeks Helping Hands

By /Zip06.com

In August 2012, leaders of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Advent in Clinton decided to clear the tangle of trees and brush behind the tiny, wood-shingled, Gothic-revival-style building in order to see the plot’s potential. Could it serve the church and the community, they wondered.

“It was completely impenetrable,” recalled parishioner Margaret Larom, whose husband Peter is the rector. “It was such a jungle that people didn’t go in, and no one knew whether there was rocky ledge, or a big gully, or some other impediment.”

When the bulldozers cleared out and the dust settled, the back property was revealed as perfectly flat—a large, level lot with no rocks.

“We had an ‘a-ha’ moment,” said Larom.

The church had been hosting a food pantry for the past decade, and much of the fresh produce it had been giving away was brought in by car or truck from three different sources.

“A lot of our vegetables came from St. Mary’s Garden, tended by Dave Konefal and other parishioners of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Clinton,” said Larom. “St. Mary’s still contributes massively to the pantry. The second source was the Common Good Gardens in Old Saybrook, the original garden set up to grow vegetables, herbs, and fruit for all five pantries in the Shoreline Soup Kitchens & Pantries network.”

Larom had been volunteering there as a weeder and was learning the ropes.

“Local farmers and gardeners would also bring surplus to the pantry,” she said. “One special example was Rob Chase, who had a farm in Killingworth and contributed lots of veggies each season. Immediately after seeing that Holy Advent had cleared the plot, he brought his tractor down to rototill it!”

Chase, who has since moved to California, was one of the founding members of Holy Advent’s new community garden, Food for All, said Larom—“He was the genius behind much of what we did.”

The church held a community meeting in October 2012 to gauge local interest in supporting their plan for a garden.

“While there was support for the idea,” said Larom, “it was a busy year with the 350th town celebration being organized.”

The idea took root, though, and with a combination of patience, ingenuity, and persistence, the community garden began to take shape.

Eight Tons and Counting

Larom served as acting coordinator of the garden, and she and Chase worked closely with parishioners and other volunteers to get the project off the ground. Deer fencing was purchased from a blueberry farmer on Craigslist, and in the spring of 2013, a band of volunteers installed it around the main garden, which is 100 x 200 feet. They also put in water lines, dug beds, planted seeds, and transplanted seedlings started by Suzanne Baker, proprietor of Shoreline Gardens in Clinton. Money was raised, more volunteers came, a greenhouse was assembled with funding from the Rockfall Foundation, and—thanks in large part to the men’s group from the United Methodist Church across the street—tool sheds were built.

By the end of the first season, the proud gardeners, all amateurs, had harvested 3,750 pounds of vegetables, herbs, and flowers for the Clinton food pantry, which serves more than 120 households from Clinton, Killingworth, and other shoreline towns every week.

The second year, Food for All contributed 5,900 pounds, and in 2015, they harvested 6,580 pounds of fresh produce, bringing the three-year total to more than eight tons.

Over that time, said Larom, the garden has expanded and improved thanks to heavy equipment (a Ditch Witch dug trenches, and an irrigation system was designed and built by one of the volunteers), as well as generous donations from area foundations, local civic groups, and church organizations. A grant from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture covered the expense of digging a well and erecting a 14 x 40-foot hoop house.

“We were going to buy a kit that would have made a structure half that size,” Larom recalls, but Clinton Nurseries offered to construct a much bigger one right on the premises for the same cost.

Having the hoop house, said Larom, has allowed Food for All to start the gardening season earlier (stashed in the hoop house last week were rows of scallions waiting to be planted). It has also extended their growing season.

“Our last harvest last year was Dec. 16,” she said.

The real secret to the garden’s success, she said, has been the group of hard-working volunteers who keep it going.

“Many people and many groups are part of this effort. They come from Clinton, Deep River, Westbrook, Niantic, Madison, Killingworth, and other towns. They include individuals, schools, clubs, Families Helping Families, churches, special education programs, boy scouts, and senior citizens.”

Help Wanted

Food for All’s core group of volunteers numbers about 20 individuals who come at least once a week and are well-versed in most aspects of the garden’s operation. Many other volunteers participate in major work projects once or twice a season or sporadically, as their jobs and family responsibilities permit.

“There are more than 100 on my email list, but some aren’t able to garden anymore, so they give in other ways, or they are my links to local schools or institutions that occasionally send help,” said Larom.

While that sounds like a lot of hands, she said, the garden could always use more volunteers.

“There is something to do for every age and ability, with different jobs that involve standing, kneeling, sitting, and walking around. If you can’t get down on your knees anymore (or fear that once you’re down, you can’t get back up), there are things to do standing or sitting. Even little kids can help!”

The garden, fortuitously, is situated between the Pierson School and Peregine’s Landing. Throughout the spring and fall, an after-school club of 4th- and 5th-graders meets in the garden every Wednesday.

“They really help,” said Larom. “They’re in charge of the raised beds.”

On the other side of the garden, older residents at Peregrine’s Landing are also part of the crew.

“We found out they would come to the window and watch us while we were out there weeding, planting, and harvesting, so we cleared a path for them and welcomed them in,” Larom said.

In addition to volunteers, Food for All welcomes financial help.

Group volunteer times are Saturday and Wednesday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon. Around mid-June, as Food for All gets deeper into the season with all 75 beds planted and weeding and harvesting taking more time, Wednesdays became full days.

A Time to Reap, a Time to Sow

The food pantry that Holy Advent hosted every Wednesday night since 2003 moved late in 2015 to Clinton’s First Church of Christ Congregational, whose larger indoor space accommodates more people. The garden out back continues to provide fresh produce for the new pantry site.

Even after all her days in the dirt, Larom said the garden is a constant source of awe and wonder.

“Just the fact that seeds, little dried-up things in paper packets, germinate and grow into gorgeous, delicious vegetables and flowers is a miracle. The constant surprise is how wonderful volunteers are, how faithful and hardworking. They come in the rain; they sweat through the summers; they work twice as many hours as they intended; they bring friends, neighbors, children, and grandchildren. There’s something about the garden, about working together for the common good, that is an energizing and healing thing.”

Anyone interested in volunteering or making in-kind or financial contributions should contact Larom at at margaretlarom@gmail.com or 917-714-4215.