On the hottest day in July, the women of Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women welcomed me into their garden for an impromptu mid-summer harvest gathering.
|Basil, tomatoes and peppers galore|
Armed with clippers and plastic bags, the women set out to harvest as many herbs and vegetables from their six 4ft. x 4 ft. raised garden beds. Despite its small size, the garden yielded a bountiful harvest of kale, hot peppers, onions, basil, parsley and rosemary. Beautiful shades of green lined every one of the garden beds. Soon the tomatoes will also be ripe, adding fresh tones of red to the garden. Part of what contributed to this success – besides the healthy soil - included using a variation of square foot gardening and carefully monitoring the garden these past few months.
|The women begin their harvest|
The women were a little disappointed with the garden casualties, particularly with the lettuce and cilantro that unexpectedly bolted within a one-week period. On the other hand, they were excited after we discussed the fall veggies that they would soon plant, such as garlic, spinach, and beets.
The community garden at the Center is, in many ways, a symbol of women’s empowerment and hope. Sister Ann Marie Paul, the dedicated Director of Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women, explained that the community garden fulfills the mission of the Center by “empowering women in terms of feeding their families and encouraging ownership.” Initially, Sister Ann Marie was uncertain about starting a garden because the Center had just opened its doors in September of the previous year. However, she submitted the Dig In! application and was awarded a micro-grant to establish the new community garden. With the help of Sister Elaine and Sister Mary Irene, they organized several women to join the group.
|Happy with their harvest|
Three months after the garden was constructed and planted, the garden group consists of a core group of five women eager to expand their knowledge of gardening and persuade more women to join the group. I was surprised to learn that a few of the women actually had no prior experience with gardening since they were so engaged every time I visited the Center!
The educational workshops provided by the Dig In! program have helped the women learn more about maintaining the garden and nurturing the soil. Ana, of the first recruits to the garden who also maintains a garden at home says she is particularly interested in composting and has now started composting most organic materials at home with her son.
As we celebrated the harvest, we also said goodbye to Hermelinda, one of the most enthusiastic members of the Center who would soon be moving with her family. Meeting Hermelinda and her small children was particularly refreshing because the children were quite curious about the vegetables and asked many questions. In spite of the short time she participated in the garden group, Hermelinda said she enjoyed making new friendships with the other women and learning about how they incorporated the vegetables in their meals.
|Separating the vegetables|
After the harvest, the women began to separate all the herbs and vegetables and divided these into four equal portions for each of the women that attended the Center that day. Since every garden bed is shared and the women planted the vegetables together, they only felt comfortable harvesting as a group. Sister Ann Marie noted that “these women are so giving. I believe they will take these vegetables home and even split it with their neighbors and family.” Being part of this generous communal moment underscored for me the significance of community gardening and all the added benefits it brings to people.
So what’s next for the community garden at Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women? Sister Ann Marie would like the women to organize and manage the garden independently with only minimal assistance from her. That way, the women can really make this garden their own space. She would like also like the garden to produce enough food to share some of it with a local food bank.
The Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women is located in Passaic, NJ. They were one of the first applicants of the Dig In! program. The mission of the Center is to empower women by providing a place where they can meet each other in a peaceful and safe environment, express their needs and discover community resources to fulfill their needs, and strengthen themselves and their families through educational growth.
by Claudia Urdanivia
Claudia is Program Operations Manager at City Green and oversees the Dig In! program.