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Community gardening thrives in Hampden

Date: 8/16/2010

Aug. 16, 2010

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Managing Editor

HAMPDEN -- Last year's attempt on South Road was a washout. But this season is looking like a winner for the newly formed Hampden Community Gardens.

The corn is high, as are the sunflowers. Ripe tomatoes peek out among lush green leaves and squash, melons and cucumbers are visible among hillock after hillock of vines. There's cauliflower and cabbage in one plot, string and bush beans in another.

Some plots have scarecrows, others birdhouses and statuary. Some even boast solar lights, providing a soft glow for late-evening harvests.

"We've got 32 plots rented, which is pretty good," Beryle Doten, coordinator of the community gardens, said. "We thought if we rented 20 [this year] we'd be doing good."

Stanley Witkop, who lives in the house across the road, donated the one-acre community gardening space at 220 Mill Rd. for this season.

"Not only did he volunteer [the land] he tilled it for us. We couldn't ask for anything more," Doten said. "Years ago I think he grew strawberries here. It's wonderful, fertile land."

Each gardener paid $20 for a 20 - foot -by - 20 foot plot for the season. According to Doten, this year's renters come from Springfield, East Longmeadow, Monson and Hampden.

"Most work, and come in the evenings," she said. Two are in treatment for cancer and "garden as a part of their therapy." Another participant, Sharyn Rys is gardening with her granddaughter, Olivia. Several Laotian families from Springfield took plots to grow vegetables familiar to them, but difficult to obtain in area markets.

"One gal has a Mexican garden, she's growing hot peppers and tomatillios," Doten added.

Others, such as Community Gardens committee member Don Collins, who is cultivating rows of corn and potatoes in his space at the gardens, took plots to grow crops that would have taken up too much room in a home vegetable garden.

Yvonne Peloquin of the 16 Acres area of Springfield, who is farming three plots this season, said she took the space because she was "looking for a place to do real gardening, not just a border with some lettuce."

A fresh food enthusiast who used to drive "30 miles for organic lettuce," Pelquin's crops include two kinds of cucumbers, three kinds of tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, radishes, lettuce, carrots, peas, sweet potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, butternut and acorn squash, soybeans, green beans, regular pumpkins and several types of flowers.

"And that's just what's here, not what's at home," she said.

"That's what's great about the gardens," Doten said. "[People] can grow what they want, sometimes things that aren't available in the supermarkets."

Doten added that the ability to grow vegetables pesticide-free only organic fertilizers are allowed in Hampden's community gardens appeals to many participants.

The community gardens supplies a basket of tools participants can borrow if they forgot their equipment and several benches and a small bistro set where they can take a rest from their labors. Committee member Charles Arment loaned the project a water truck from his business, which the volunteer fire department refills on a regular basis, so gardeners needn't haul their own supply.

Doten, who pitched the concept of a community garden to Hampden Garden Club President Ginny Blake "about a year and a half ago," said she saw a need for this kind of community space, even in a town with plenty of land per household.

"People have said, 'I've got land, why do I need [a community garden]?" Doten said. "But Wilbraham has run a community garden since the 1960s; I used to garden there myself. Longmeadow has one, I think, down on the flats, and Monson is looking to start one up."

Collins said growing things in a community space is more that just about having land to cultivate.

"I imagine it's the social aspect of meeting other gardeners, exchanging ideas and seeing what they are growing," he said.

Pelquin, who was ohhing and ahing at the produce in other gardener's plots -- and stooping to pick the errant pest off a cucumber leaf here, a squash leaf there as she walked past her neighbor's plants -- seemed to agree.

"It's also about stopping by and picking up four ears of corn for supper tonight," Collins added as he pulled fresh ears from a row of stalks in his plot.

Anyone interested in more information about the Hampden Community Gardens, including enquires about securing space for nest year, should contact Doten at 566-3466.

The Hampden Garden Club will tour the Community Gardens on Aug. 19 at 6 p.m. You need not be a member to join the tour. Call Beryle Doton at 566-3466 for details.

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