By Jane Olsen, BTLT summer fellow
My name is Jane Olsen and I am a rising junior at Bowdoin College working at the Land Trust for the summer supporting the Tom Settlemire Community Garden (TSCG). 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. Recently, I spoke with Peter Milligan and Marc Brown, who have both been plot holders at TSCG for around four years.
Peter Milligan was one of the first people to show me the meaning of a community garden. In my early days of gardening this summer, I was cluelessly picking brown tail caterpillars off of the apple trees in the orchard when Peter warned me of the risks and offered advice, revealing to me the benefit of collective knowledge.
A couple weeks later, I got to know Peter over zoom. While he has been in the Brunswick area for over 20 years, Peter first came to the Tom Settlemire Community Garden four years ago, drawn to the space because of the sunlight that was largely absent in his own shady backyard. From the start, when he first assisted his parents in their garden, Peter fell in love with the simple pleasures of cultivation:
“Gardening is one way to take care of things and participate in the natural world that’s around me. I’m a nurturing person so I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching my garden grow, on some basic level,” said Peter.
This year, his time spent at the Garden means growing brassicas, peas, herbs, tomatoes and peppers. While he mostly eats the food that he grows, when the middle of August hits and he is overwhelmed with harvesting, he tends to share his produce and experiment with dehydrating. Simultaneous to experimenting, Peter advises gardeners not to take any failures to heart:
“I would not get overly emotionally involved, if something doesn’t work. As soon as your neighbor gets a pest, you’re probably gonna get the same thing because everyone’s so close. But you can’t worry about it, take it in stride.”
As a biology professor at the University of Maine in Augusta Peter has dealt with virtual teaching for a while now and expressed his gratitude for time spent disconnected from a screen in the garden:
“We’re all online with the headphones for six to seven hours a day, so when I go outside, I tend to leave it all behind. There’s a personal connection, something that you need as a human being, to have that sort of physical interaction with people, like, oh, we’re having a conversation in person. It scratches something about being human that connecting online doesn’t do. I think still, if you ask people what they’re missing is that kind of community and so I appreciate the people that sort of create that in the garden and maintain it.”
Similarly to Peter, his neighbor in the Garden, Marc Brown, came to the Garden for sunshine and found a community. As a previous resident of Bath, Marc and his family were accustomed to sunny days and their move to the woods of Brunswick brought with it shade, hindering plant growth. After four years at the Garden, Marc has observed that along with a full dose of sun comes his need to visit the Garden almost every day.
“I’ve learned, over the last few years, I thought like well, it should be fine. And then I come back and the weeds just take over. So even though it’s totally obvious, it’s taken this many years to be like I have to water just about every day. I have to come and check out what the weeds are up to every day.”
Not only is the Garden a community space for the plot holders themselves, but a gathering place for the community as a whole. One of Marc’s favorite things about gardening used to be coming to the Garden to pick snow peas and cherry tomatoes with his kids when they were younger. Nowadays, his youngest son will still accompany him to the Garden, and has even helped with the layout design of his garden plot. Although Marc has had mixed success experimenting with plants, he emphasized that regardless of various setbacks, he always appreciates simple time in the Garden:
“One of the things I do like about it is that it just kind of is, you know what I mean? The birds are chirping or the breezes blow. I like getting dirty and seeing stuff grow. It’s as simple as that.”
While the Garden has always been a place of unity, the outdoor community space proved especially valuable throughout the many waves of Covid-19. Volunteer days at the Common Good Garden provided a safe place outdoors to connect and meant a lot to plot holders like Marc.
“When Covid hit it was awesome to be able to do something outside that was consistent and stable. The other thing this year that kind of occurred to me is it’s just, it’s definitely a community garden. It’s got everything going on. There’s nothing exactly perfect or clean about it. But it’s a bunch of very different people coming together with a central focus. The garden has helped me to see that actually communities are pretty messy with lots of different personalities trying to figure it out.”
One of my favorite parts about talking to Peter and Marc separately was listening to their personal understandings of community, prompting me to appreciate how everyone brings their own values and perspectives together within one garden space.