Fun and Challenges of Building a Community Garden

From: UMaine Cooperative Extension’s “Maine Home Garden News”, October, 2019

After acquiring what is now known as The McKeon Environmental Reserve, the Directors of the Mousam Way Land Trust endorsed the concept to plan and build a community ecology center. The David and Linda Pence Community Ecology Center, named after the generous folks who put the fundraising for Reserve property acquisition over the top, will include an Environmental Center where folks can hold meetings; a small workshop for making bird nesting boxes, bat houses, informational signs, and other eco-oriented projects; an environmental library, attuned towards school kids; an ADA-accessible outdoor restroom; an industrial-sized greenhouse; and a nursery to propagate various plants for the Nature Trail and other ongoing projects:

  • Meadow restoration being helped along by, among others, 2nd grade kids from local schools;
  • Self-guided Nature Trail with informational placards, passing through the existing 2 1/2 miles of trails with several types of woodland, forested wetland, and meadow habitats, which can support most Maine-endemic species;
  • Local high school students’ science studies relating to our avian friends; students choose a bird species, learn about its habitat requirements, then design, build, and properly place nesting boxes in various areas in the Reserve.

But I was asked to talk about another facet of the Eco-Center and the Reserve: The Sanford Community Garden.

Public outreach and environmental awareness being leading tenets of Mousam Way Land Trust’s operational directives, the Reserve’s field next to a barn, and a windmill-styled hand water pump connected to a very productive drilled well both sparked a vision within the prescient-minded Dr. Bud Johnston, Trust co-founder and long-time President. “Let’s build a community garden, an offering sorely lacking in the Sanford area.”

Recruiting public involvement is always an agenda item when Trust projects begin, and this was no different. University of Maine Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteers (MGV) from York County worked with Bud to plan, design, budget, source materials, solicit other volunteers, build, and maintain Sanford Community Garden.

It was very quickly realized that substantial financing would be required, so Dr. Bud got to work researching grant possibilities and doing the quiet and tedious work of grant writing. Generous donors, organizations, and local businesses answered Bud’s call for help; and the Maine Master Gardener Development Board answered mine!

With sufficient funding, it was shopping time. A neighbor’s recently rehabbed portable sawmill and his abundant hemlock trees became the planks that formed the 27, 4-foot by 12-foot raised beds. A neighboring town’s sawmill supplied the composted soil, which tested perfect for the garden’s use. Deer fencing, posts, tools, water supply materials, nuts, bolts, screws, landscape fabric … we had plenty of toys to play with! “Playtime” began with a friendly plumber removing the old hand pump and installing a pressurized system, using the electrical service available in the barn. Trenches were dug, lines and cable run, and garden hose manifolds designed, built, and installed. The annual United Way Day of Caring (UWDOC) organization found some energetic folks to work alongside some pre-enrolled raised bed gardeners and Trust members in Maine’s rocky soil, driving heavy steel fence posts and digging deep holes for the corner and gate posts, which were expertly fashioned by experienced carpenters that just happened to be among the UWDOC folks. Unbelievable, right!

From this (old hand water pump) to this (new covered pump)
Photos courtesy of Kevin McKeon. Used with permission.
People building raised flower bed.
Photo courtesy of Kevin McKeon. Used with permission.

While the posts and gates were being placed, Master Gardener Volunteers (you thought they just grew plants, right!?) joined others to assemble the heavy, 10-inch-high raised beds in neat rows, and line them all with landscape fabric. A helpful neighbor drove his tractor from his farm through some of the Reserve’s 2 1/2 miles of woods trails to help fill the beds with rich soil as they were built. Yet even more volunteers raked the soil level in the beds as some volunteers’ kids played in a huge, 1/8 acre “sandpit” — actually a foundation for the donated greenhouse yet to be installed — blessed again by generous donors, but that’s a story for another time.

Mishaps you ask? Learning as we go? Well…

  • There was a time where the gravel delivery truck slid off the very slippery, waterlogged access road (remember the late, wet spring this year?), and “re-located” the neighbor’s (us!) raised bed of asparagus;
  • The late Spring? Well, the soil at the vendors was too muddy to load into the trucks, so the delivery was delayed by about 3 weeks;
  • Then, the roads were weight-limit posted, so the trucks couldn’t drive on ‘em ’til the postings got lifted!
  • When the soil was sufficiently dried and the roads were open for the trucks, the dump trucks couldn’t make it all the way to the Community Garden area due to mud, so the soil got dumped in the neighbor’s (us, again!) driveway. (Notice the “s” on the word “trucks”? 55 yards in the driveway!)
Dump truck slid off road into asparagus plants.
Photos courtesy of Kevin McKeon. Used with permission.

Anyway, the raised beds are built, filled with soil, surrounded with an 8-foot-tall, high-tensile steel deer fence tightly stretched around steel and wooden posts, 5-foot-wide gates are swinging open for access, wood chips from the on-going city road building project are spread along the fencing perimeter and between beds, and hundreds of seed packets and rather sickly-looking plants donated from local businesses were placed in the hands of excited gardeners.

Well, the sickly plants survived MGV-rehab wonderfully and, along with hundreds of seeds now sprouting and plenty of watering hoses to keep them all happy, we are also growing a bustling community garden. Some beds are assigned to folks who have been granted waivers due to financial challenges (the Trust asks for a $25 donation to help cover operational and maintenance costs); some are being tended by supervised adults with disabilities; some are under the watchful eyes of a local school’s food-for-kids program; others are tended by Master Gardener Volunteers for local food pantries. A few have gone unassigned and are sprouting buckwheat cover crop sown to enrich the soil even further.

From this (fencing) and this (dump truck) and this (fields) and this (lumber) to this (fenced in and planted raised bed garden).
Photo Courtesy of Kevin McKeon. Used with permission.

Next spring, we won’t be waiting for the soil to thaw and dry to allow trucking it to a waterlogged, impassable road (did I mention that we needed to rebuild and gravel a couple hundred feet of road to allow access to the garden area?). And with the water supply available, we expect gardeners to fill up all the beds and are anticipating a waiting list. The future is bright and bountiful!

Learn more about this project:

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