Love Those Dirty Fingernails



On a pristine, sun-soaked, early spring morning, I leave one Boston and enter another. The Boston I’m leaving – Kenmore Square – buzzes with tourists, baseball fans, al fresco diners, commuters and the insistent honks of buses, cars and Duck Boats. Making my way across the Boylston bridge further into the Fens, the Kenmore din begins to fade away as morning rays fall softly on an almost surreal Boston panorama: a sea of more than 500 garden plots, comprising seven-and-a-half acres, surrounded by the mature trees, cattails, and families of geese that characterize the Back Bay Fens.

Soon, I’m enveloped by the life and growth already evident in the Fenway Victory Gardens, Boston’s largest and oldest community growing space. The Richard D. Parker Memorial Victory Gardens were formed in 1942 under President Franklin Roosevelt to help feed a war-weary nation during World War II. The country’s 20 million victory gardens were incredibly successful on this front, accounting for half the produce grown and eaten by Americans during the war.

A few things have changed since then: fences around the plots keep out humans and animals who might take what isn’t theirs, and members say slightly less soil is dedicated to growing food than in the old days. What’s stayed the same is a membership that reflects Bost n’s diverse population.

According to Sarah Oakes, an architectural designer and Fenway resident who is currently serving as the president of the victory gardens, it’s not uncommon for a gardener in his or her 90s to work a plot next to a professional wearing a suit or heels next to someone whose first language is Chinese.

Oakes tends to a mix of flowers and produce – like okra, pie pumpkins, peas, and even cayenne peppers – in side-byside plots she shares with her partner. Working outside the city, she says she regularly exits the Green Line trolley and bee-lines it to her personal oasis from the noise, concrete, and steel of Boston.

“You forget you’re in the city,” she remarks. “It’s our little piece of heaven. It’s our sanctuary.”

As difficult as it is to imagine today, given the waiting lists at almost every garden in the city, there were decades when Bostonians’ interest in community gardening was abysmal. Oakes says that after the war, membership faded so low that gardeners were given two or three plots just to make sure all seven-and-a-half acres remained cared-for. Over the last two decades, the number of community gardens in Boston has steadily risen to 176 growing spaces today, which produce more than $1 million worth of food annually, according to Boston Natural Areas Network estimates.

It would be simplistic to attribute the greater number of community gardens in the city solely to the increased attention on ecology and local foods – though these have certainly been factors. Changes in demographics have probably been a bigger factor. For several decades now, Boston has experienced a deluge of immigrants from Southeast Asia, Central and South America, Africa, and the Caribbean, many of whom bring with them their growing traditions. At one Dorchester garden, 14 languages are spoken regularly, according to Vidya Tikku, general manager for the Boston community gardens at Trustees of Reservations, which manages 56 gardens across the city.

“[Gardening’s] what they do at home,” says Jerel Ferguson, youth development specialist at The Food Project, which has built a large agriculture footprint in Roxbury and Dorchester over two decades. “They have farms, then they’re thrust into this weather and the city, and they need that outlet – something to remind them of home.”

Gardeners without yards rely on a number of community growing spaces in and around Dudley. One of the most innovative is the Dudley Greenhouse, built by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and managed by The Food Project. Half the greenhouse is dedicated to growing tomatoes, which The Food Project sells to restaurants and at farmer’s markets to support the maintenance of the greenhouse’s other half – a community growing space.

The day I visit the Dudley Greenhouse, a Northeastern co-op intern and volunteer from the neighborhood are pushing seedlings into tiny containers of soil. A small group of staff and clients of the nonprofit Haley House speak a mix of Spanish and English as they too prepare seedlings for planting. And Baba Rumas, as he introduces himself to me, is shoveling compost from the sidewalk into wheelbarrows.

Rumas is an unlikely permanent fixture at the Dudley Greenhouse. In 2011, a friend invited him to help out at her garden plot there. Soon enough, Rumas was gardening space of his own. He bartered fresh-baked bread in exchange for the $40 annual fee.

“I had collard greens, man, that grew in three weeks, and they were standing as tall as you,” he tells me. “I was hooked.”

And he’s on a mission to get other neighbors hooked as well. He loves bringing kids and teens to his plot and seeing them “discover, right here, that everything they eat comes out of the ground.” He bakes some of the produce he grows into scratch-made samosas and sells them out of his small catering business. This encouragement and synergy, he says, is what keeps Rumas coming back to the greenhouse as much as four times weekly. (He now has keys.)

“It’s really a good place to be,” he says.

I walk with Kiplinger and Ferguson down several residential streets near The Food Project’s Dudley headquarters.

This is the neighborhood where Ferguson has lived with his mother for the last 17 years, and it, like many Boston neighborhoods, has been gentrifying. With more of the available land being developed and some long-term residents being priced out, Kiplinger has identified the emergence of themes like “resistance” and “reclaiming” behind neighborhood pushes for new growing space. Residents here view farms and gardens as a method of maintaining community control of land that is highly sought-after by developers.

In yard after yard, large amounts of food are being grown – some setups are quite elaborate – and a few abandoned lots were claimed by neighbors as growing spaces years ago, guerilla style. Despite the more recent gentrification, it was decades of disinvestment in Dudley and the surrounding neighborhoods that led to the formation of the community land trust Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in 1984, and eventually The Food Project, organizations that are now helping residents satisfy their preference for additional growing spaces over more buildings.

“Reclaimed” certainly describes Dudley’s newest community garden in two previously vacant lots on Folsom St., where homeowners nearby receive weekly offer letters from real estate developers. Last year, the city-owned parcels were brought to the community for their input. Neighbors – including a large youth contingency – joined with The Food Project to lobby hard for the sunny lots to become a community garden.

“People were saying if we don’t claim this land for the neighborhood and for the kind of use we want to see for our community,” Ferguson remembers, “probably it’s going to be developed and that will be something that we as a neighborhood don’t have a lot of say over.”

In just a couple of weekends this April, an army of neighborhood volunteers transformed the formerly fenced-in, trash-ridden lots with a fresh bed of wood chips, a half-dozen or so growing boxes, and a plastic kids’ slide built creatively into a terraced mound of strawberry plants. The Food Project assisted with the behind-the-scenes politics and implementation of the space, but will soon turn it over to a committee of neighborhood growers “to lead and grow on and maintain,” says Ferguson – the first of what they hope will be many other “reclaimed,” community-run growing spaces. When is a community garden not a garden? When it’s a food forest.

Food forests typically combine an array of symbiotic food-bearing and non-edible plants, trees and garden beds in a space that is open to the public — where a community garden might put up fences and gates to keep out critters and non-members. Food forests often thrive on permaculture principles, making the spaces quite self-sustaining and less dependent on water.

“We’re trying to mimic forest, woodland ecosystems, but instead of having them happen naturally, we’re gardening those ecoystems,” says Orion Kriegman, director of the Boston Food Forest Coalition. “The other piece of the puzzle is that it’s community space. Weaving the web of community is primary.”

Renewing urban ecology and combating climate change are also fundamental goals of food forests; over time, this model of urban agriculture can bring cleaning and healing to contaminated soil. If you like, think of food forestry as community gardening 2.0.

The Egleston Community Orchard was the first such growing space in Boston in 2010. The beginning of the story is familiar at this point: neighbors reclaim a long-vacant lot, picking up the trash and hypodermic needles and planting donated fruit-bearing trees and bushes. Kriegman, who lives nearby and helped spearhead the initiative, remembers that “some neighbors who were unable to spend their weekend doing the work would hand us cold beers over the fence. One guy drove an ice cream truck and would offer us free ice cream.”

The response of many of those neighbors, though, to a local tragedy transformed the orchard into a cherished and almost sacred space in the Jamaica Plain and Roxbury communities. After a young man was murdered in front of the orchard in 2010, community members offered his family space in the orchard to hold vigil and brought them soup and water as they mourned. A sign reading “Paz,” Spanish for “peace,” was placed in the orchard and a blackberry bush was planted in the young man’s memory.

Kriegman says that was a “visible moment of healing over the violence in the neighborhood,” and that each year, on the anniversary of the shooting, the young man’s family returns to the orchard to re-treat the altar that was left in his memory. The orchard is the site of periodic community nights and a large annual harvest festival, the success of which Kriegman attributes to “the specific experience people had in bringing this together.”

Out of the Egleston Community Orchard grew the Boston Food Forest Coalition, which became its own land trust in 2014 and was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2015. The BFFC is building, in stages, a food forest at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan, which, when completed, will feature an orchard with fruiting shrubs, mushroom logs, annual vegetables, a greenhouse that collects rainwater, beehives, and a gathering space underneath a grape arbor – all connected by nature trails.

The organization exists as a technical and financial resource to several other food forest projects, as well as a nonprofit land trust to make it easier for communities to “save spaces for growing food organically.”

Strolling up and down the paths of the Fenway Victory Gardens, it’s near impossible not to stop at every plot, breathe in the sweetness of blooming perennials, imagine what food the tiny, emerging seedlings will become, and bask in the beauty of this oasis – an oasis that has, for more than seven decades, been set aside for growing food, flowers, and community.

Seeing the gleam in Rumas’s eyes when he talks about collards or witnessing a food forest emerge from city soil, one senses that these growing spaces are indispensible in our busy and diversifying city and should be protected.

STEVE HOLT Steve Holt covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for several local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Read more of his writing at and connect with him on Twitter and Instagram: @thebostonwriter.