In years past, vacant garden plots could be found in the Capital District Community Gardens. But this year, residents have been so hungry for growing space that they’ve even taken over plots that were abandoned as late as August, filling every single garden and asking for more.
“We have had a burning interest that I have never seen before in my 11 years here,” said Amy Klein, executive director of Capital District Community Gardens.
Even the agency’s “less popular locations,” such as the large gardens on Hamilton Hill, filled up this spring. Now the agency is looking for more land to keep up with Schenectady’s demand for dirt.
“I’m assuming it’s the economy,” Klein said. “You can grow $1,500 of produce for nothing out of one plot.”
She may get more land by spring: Schenectady City Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard wants to sell or lease two city-owned lots near Jerry Burrell Park to expand the Community Gardens.
“I believe that vegetable gardens on the edge of the park would just be the most appropriate use of city land,” Blanchard said. “Habitat for Humanity wanted to buy them from us and we said no. We were thinking about making that part of the park. I very much would like to have gardens there.”
She says gardens could help stabilize the park, which has been a gathering point for criminals in the past, particularly at night.
“I think there’s a new feel there now,” she said, citing the many improvements made to the park this summer. “There’s a positive sense when you’re at that park now, I think, and I’d like to expand it. I see no reason why we can’t start next year.”
SPACE AND CASH
Klein said she’d love to have any land the city wants to give her — although she added that it would be helpful if the city could also give her the money to turn a residential lot into a garden. The newest Community Garden in the city, off Wabash Avenue in the Bellevue neighborhood, cost $15,000 to build this year. And that garden is small — it has just eight plots.
“It’s soil, it’s fencing — those are the biggest costs,” Klein said, but added that the expense won’t stop her agency from expanding. “We’re always actively looking for new garden plots.”
The gardens in Schenectady have proven popular with nearly everyone — new immigrants, impoverished public housing residents, blue collar workers and executives.
At Steinmetz Homes, a group of Afghan immigrants grows much of their food in the gardens. At the Cutler Street garden, a Guyanese woman has imported seeds from her homeland to grow 2-foot-long beans, one of many vegetable varieties difficult to buy here. She saves the seeds each year for the next year’s garden.
On Mumford Street in Hamilton Hill, a Head Start employee signed up for her first Community Garden plot this year after moving to a house that didn’t have space for a garden. At first, she said, she wasn’t sure she wanted to garden on the Hill, given the neighborhood’s reputation for crime.
“I was hesitant,” Susan Fitzgerald said. “I thought, ‘Do I really want to be there at dusk after work?’ I found it’s a real lovely neighborhood. So that was a learning experience for me.”
She also found the gardening was far easier than it had been in her backyard. Community Gardens provides tools, seeds and even demonstrations and one-on-one help for amateur gardeners. The agency also tills the land at the beginning of each season and pays for water hookups.
“It’s not just making the land available,” Fitzgerald said. “You don’t have to come with any tool at all. There’s a source for water. You can get free seeds. It’s been wonderful.”
This summer, she successfully grew beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and lima beans, but she’s not gardening to reduce her grocery bill.
“It’s for the sheer pleasure of gardening,” she said. “If you count your labor, it’s probably not a cost-benefit.”
But there’s something powerful about growing the food, she explained.
“You watch something grow and kind of nurse it along,” she said.
Gardeners who want a plot next year can sign up this winter by calling Community Gardens at 274-8685.