Community Garden Plot Holder Spotlight: Julia St.Clair

By Jane Olsen, BTLT summer fellow

My name is Jane Olsen, I’m a junior at Bowdoin College and I worked at the Land Trust for the summer supporting the Tom Settlemire Community Garden. This post is the last of my plotholder profiles series, a project where I have been engaged with the many plotholders of the Garden, young and old, with all ranges of gardening experience. I have chosen to highlight Julia St.Clair as the final subject of this project because not only is she a plotholder, but she plays an instrumental role in supporting the success of the Garden as whole.

Julia St.Clair

Julia St.Clair is the Agricultural Programs Coordinator at the Land Trust, overseeing the Saturday Farmers’ Market at Crystal Spring Farm and the Tom Settlemire Community Garden. As my supervisor, I worked closely with Julia throughout the summer and from my first day I understood her devotion to the Garden, embracing volunteers with open arms, and pointing out various insects. My final conversation for the plotholder profiles project, I was excited to be able to sit down and ask her some questions.

Her love for gardening began as a child in her mom’s robust flower garden planting bulbs and admiring the flowers and butterflies. Carrying on this love for the environment, Julia focused on  Environmental Studies and Photography in college. Before joining the Land Trust last year, she had already worked extensively in the agriculture industry, in large scale commercial organic farming and permaculture growing. 

“Being in a community garden or working in the Common Good Garden is such a different scale and way of thinking about space than what I have knowledge and background in. So it’s kind of a give and take of learning and also somehow being tasked with being in charge of things” said Julia

“I’m young, I haven’t been doing this for very long. Sometimes I really don’t know what I’m doing. So there’s a balance between feeling like I’m not equipped to be growing things properly. And also feeling like this is actually a really amazing space and opportunity for me to be able to learn how to do things and to learn more than one right way of doing things.”

Though Julia has been working at the Land Trust since last year, this is her first year having a plot: 

“I didn’t really have enough time or energy to tend to things last year. I was excited to be serious and grow in a plot this year.”

While the Tom Settlemire Community Garden can often have a waitlist, Portland’s community gardens have waitlists that are hundreds of people long, so Julia expressed her gratitude for the availability at a community garden in South Portland, near where she lives. She explained to me that growing at her plot in South Portland is very different from TSCG. This is largely because TSCG has been used for cultivation for many years and is surrounded by fields and agricultural land inviting many pests. The lack of pests is one of the reasons she almost exclusively grows beans in her plot in South Portland, in addition to the plant’s beautiful flowers. 

While the conditions of TSCG do inevitably invite pests, the protection from the fencing as well as resources like compost and tools for all to use are significant benefits of the space. For many, one of the biggest draws to the Garden is not the physical space itself, but the community within the Garden.

Julia shared, “There’s something about community gardens that are really cool because everybody has their own style of gardening. From the things that they grow, to the approach that they have, there’s something so cool about getting to learn from everyone. I really love the community around the Garden itself. We’re growing food, we’re feeding ourselves, we’re feeding each other, we’re feeding our community and that feels really important.”

As someone so closely involved with the Garden, Julia is constantly thinking about how to strengthen all aspects of the Garden, from efficiency of food production in the Common Good Garden, to strengthening community ties.

“We have this amazing resource of knowledge from all of these gardeners who have been growing for so many years, many of whom are Master Gardeners. I would love to see more of a transfer of that knowledge to the next generation of folks who want to garden. That feels important to me personally, but I think it’s also important to cultivate across generations.”

One way that Julia hopes to strengthen ties between generations is through encouraging younger people to get involved, whether they have gardening experience or not.

“I really want to encourage more youth of all ages to be interested in gardening, not only volunteer work, but educational programs to allow individuals to have ownership over and feel a connection to their space.”

Julia herself is excited to bring new gardeners into the community, and her advice, like many others, is to persevere in the face of initial difficulties:

“I’m always open to give advice for new gardeners. I think gardening can be a very frustrating process. But it can also be rewarding. You can try something one year that might not work the next year and it’s always sort of this fun experiment. I think if you treat it like that, it’s a lot more relaxing and enjoyable.”

If you’re ever looking for more gardening advice like Julia’s, come volunteer at the Common Good Garden workdays on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30-10:30am. Not only will you tend to crops and support the efforts of the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program, you will have the chance to learn from many experienced gardeners with endless knowledge to share. 

I am so grateful for all of the guidance Julia and the garden volunteers shared with me this summer. I hope other members of the community take advantage of this rewarding opportunity to give back to Brunswick.