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 part of my plot holder profiles series, a project where I have been delighted to get to know the over 82 plot holders at the Garden, young and old, with all ranges of gardening experience. This post features more recent members of this Garden community: Nancy and Dennis Lemieux, Alisha Chaney and Emily Settlemire.
Nancy and Dennis Lemieux
It was a lovely July afternoon when I met Nancy and Dennis in the Garden, tending to their community garden plot only a few strides away from my own. The Lemieux’s moved to Maine 35 years ago from Pennsylvania, where they first met. While this is only their second season in the TSCG, they have already gathered an abundance of knowledge.
The pair expressed that last year they were overzealous, as many new plotholders are, packing a variety of plants into their plot with high hopes. But at the end of the growing season, they discussed what they wanted to change, deciding to simplify their garden and be extra diligent to add compost and nutrients to the soil. They also constructed a wooden border around their plot to keep weeds out, protecting their peppers, tomatoes, and other crops. Their ability to redesign their plot reflects the freedom plotholders have to tailor their space to personal taste.
Every plotholder has a different approach to layout in the Garden, and Nancy and Dennis recognized that variations in the composition of a plot, from configuration to choices in seeds and fertilizer can greatly vary the financial costs of maintaining one’s garden.
“You get so much fun out of [gardening], it makes you feel good to see things come to life that you grew. You have a say in your food to be organic and natural. It’s your space, it takes you away from everything else you’re focusing on. It really relaxes you, listening to the birds, and feeling the breeze. You don’t have to talk to anybody, but everybody here is really great. People share ideas and what they grow with others. It’s not too overwhelming,” shared Nancy
Dennis agreed with this sentiment, emphasizing that the knowledge of other gardeners is one of the most beneficial aspects of the Garden:
“My advice for new gardeners would be to start simple, stay within things that you like and don’t give up. There are real, accomplished gardeners here, so take advantage and don’t be afraid to ask questions. There’s a lot more to it than just growing, we meet new people here and for us that’s been great.”
Similarly to the Lemieux’s, this is Emily Settlemire’s second year with a plot at the Garden. As Nancy and Dennis expressed, the intergenerational knowledge within the Garden can be extraordinarily beneficial to new plot holders. Emily has a unique perspective on the Garden as the granddaughter of Tom Settlemire, former BTLT president, current BTLT board member, and a dedicated supporter of the local agricultural community.
Emily’s parents both grew up on farms, surrounded by livestock and agriculture. While neither of her parents pursued careers in the agricultural field themselves, Emily’s family still had a garden throughout her childhood in Warren, Maine. This exposure to gardening, as well as science experiments in school sparked Emily’s interest in the activity early on.
This season, Emily is growing chard, sugar snap peas, and garlic. While low germination rates have been an occasional challenge for her, Emily expressed that her appreciation for the crops that do succeed is all the more satisfying.
Many plotholders I’ve talked to prefer to come to the Garden disconnected from technology and enjoy the natural sights and sounds of the space while gardening. While Emily appreciates this time connected to nature, she also enjoys listening to podcasts while tending to her plot as a “pick me up if [she] needs to push through a [gardening] project.” One podcast Emily is currently into is called Let’s Grow Girls, hosted by a couple from the U.K. interested in flower farming.
Though some plotholders have abundant time to tend to their plants, Emily expressed it can be challenging to find time to make it to the Garden as often as she would like. While attending the cardiovascular program at Southern Maine Community College, Emily was able to water everyday on her way home from school but now that she works long shifts at the Maine Medical Center, she expressed it has been difficult to make it to the Garden after work. Nevertheless, when Emily has been able to make it to the Garden after a hectic work day, the ease of being surrounded by plants is a welcome release. Emily has also learned how to configure her plot to her advantage as she navigates her varying amount of time to commit to the Garden:
“It’s a privilege to be out there. I think it comes down to finding the right things to plant out there, and that is where you’re gonna get success.”
While many gardeners treasure the planting and harvesting stages of the season, Emily revealed that weeding is one of her favorite things to do: “It’s very therapeutic, so simple and satisfying. You go through and bruise up your plot, but the next day, everything arrives from that work. It’s a chore that I once dreaded but now it’s something I want to get into and clean out.” Emily expressed her excitement in observing the root structures that are revealed in this process, providing her with a deeper understanding as to what is going on in her garden underground. Perhaps this interest is what sparked her commitment to the compost volunteer team at the Garden.
After community members and gardeners drop off their compost in the pile, the members of the team rotate their responsibilities on a weekly basis, ensuring that the decomposition process is running smoothly. This year, the compost team has a sizable group of volunteers, so the responsibilities have not been too overwhelming on any one individual. The compost team greatly contributes to the success of TSCG, providing an outlet for plot holders to fulfill their required annual volunteer hours but also bringing community members together.
This year at TSCG, Alisha is growing delicata squash, zucchini, bell and shishito peppers, leeks, potatoes in a bucket, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, brussel sprouts, radishes, strawberries, garlic, and more. Before I officially met Alisha Chaney, I knew who she was from her exclamations about the monarchs in her plot and the embroidered gift she donated to the BTLT office for Pride Month. Like the Lemieux’s and Emily, Alisha Chaney has been a part of the Garden for two years now. She shares plot 66 with her best friend, but also takes care of plot 10. Though originally from New Hampshire, she moved to Maine eight years ago.
Growing up, her grandmother always had a small garden made up of cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans, where she fondly recalled summer meals with the fresh produce:
“One of my favorite core memories as a child is going out and harvesting cucumbers and tomatoes, immediately slicing them, salting them and just sitting with my grandmother and eating them for lunch.”
Though she grew up around gardens, Alisha confessed that her green thumb did not come to her naturally:
“Growing plants is challenging for me but I’m good with plants that grow food because I’m more invested in them. I enjoy it but at times it’s also mildly overwhelming. I find it relaxing and so satisfying to say to neighbors and friends, ‘I grew this, let me feed you’”
Not only does Alisha love sharing a taste of her garden with friends outside of the space, she enjoys getting to know her neighbors in the Garden as well:
“Every time I go, I run into somebody new. And I always go and say hi because usually I am exclaiming like a cartoon character, ‘the squirrel didn’t come to eat my strawberries’ or whatever happened that day.”
As someone with two plots, Alisha was able to see the difference in the effectiveness of her various gardening techniques. In one plot, where she spent less time preparing for the year, she has been battling weeds that pop up all season, but in her second plot where she put in the time it has been smooth sailing. This experience informs her advice for new gardeners, emphasizing that choosing your battles is important:
“Give up on a plan. Don’t try. But one thing I learned from last year is if you do a really good job at the end of the season, putting your garden to bed, like making sure to be here and get stuff turned over, it sets you up really well for the following season. And taking the time to adequately weed your plot before planting will also help you, and save you from the weeds completely.”
As someone who works full time in Portland, it can be hard to make it to the Garden for the Common Good Garden work days which are hosted on weekday mornings. However, there are many other ways for plotholders to fulfill the six hour per season volunteer commitment. Alisha is able to do so through smaller projects tidying the Garden, such as weeding pathways on her own time, making plot number markers, and redesigning the Garden map.
While everyone has different approaches to gardening, and varying time to commit to their plot, TSCG has something to offer for all community members. Whether you’re looking for a picnic table with a calming view to eat your lunch, or a plot to spend countless hours tending to, the Garden is welcome to everyone in the community to enjoy.