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. 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. I loved talking with neighboring plotholders, John and Arabella Eldredge and Dan Kipp, because while they share a pathway between their gardens, they each have unique approaches.
Arabella and John Eldredge
John & Arabella by their garden plot
John and Arabella Eldredge moved from Cumberland to Brunswick around seven years ago and immediately secured a plot at the Tom Settlemire Community Garden. While they had their own larger garden for almost 25 years in Cumberland, they believe that “what they gave up in size, they made up for in community.”
Arabella was raised in Annapolis, Maryland, but she grew up visiting the Maine island Vinalhaven in the summer, cultivating a love of Maine from an early age. It was these summers where she began gardening in her parents’ family garden, a plot that Arabella and her siblings still collectively tend to. Not only did Arabella’s parents’ love for gardening foster her own interest, but her mother’s early interest in organic food also shaped her passion for cultivating her own crops.
While Arabella’s mom was ahead of her time in her appreciation of organic food throughout the 60s and 70s, John’s mom leaned into the era of convenience in the 50s and 60s. Throughout his New Hampshire upbringing, John’s family grew up eating packaged and processed foods.
“You know, if you can throw some fish sticks in the oven, maybe a little bit of iceberg lettuce, you’re good. It’s funny you grow up with a certain set of norms and sometimes you adopt those and carry those for two generations and sometimes you rebel against them and do something very different.”
While John didn’t think twice about processed foods very much at the time, when he got to college he began discovering the benefits of fresh and natural food, eventually pursuing a career in the natural food and products industry.
Today, John both volunteers at and is on the board of the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. Working in the receiving area, he watches produce come in from Hannaford and Target, to Six River Farm, making him all the more appreciative for the community connection to the Common Good Garden at TSCG. John and Arabella also expressed their appreciation for the rising farming industry as a whole and the creative ways people are finding to add value to their farms.
“Any opportunities that can be found to connect younger people to growing food is a great thing. We’re definitely seeing a new generation of young micro-farmers rather than just growing commodities. People are growing things organically or they’re actually doing a little bit of processing and finding ways to add value, so it’s very encouraging to see our farmland start to become productive again.”
In addition to appreciating TSCG’s role within the system of agriculture as a whole, John and Arabella expressed their love for the most basic joys of gardening.
“You put things in and it’ll give back to you. I like eating fresh vegetables, but also not knowing what’s going to happen from year to year. It’s always different. I just like the surprise factor and the joy of eating.” said Arabella
“I’m the token occasional waterer, I really love the kind of the ceremony, but also just the noticeable freshness of being able to harvest your own vegetables and eat them right away, “said John. “It’s a really well designed space, has plenty of sunshine and attracts a lot of interesting people who have commonalities.”
Easy access to this garden has allowed many Brunswick residents like the Eldredges to stay connected to their plot throughout the week, and between John and Arabella, they are at the garden four or five days of the week. While John has retired from a career of working in collegiate admissions, Arabella still works at the library in Cumberland. On her way to work she’ll stop by to give water to the seeds in the morning and then off she goes! Like many plot holders, John and Arabella expressed their enthusiasm for the change throughout the seasons of cultivation:
“You’ll have fun experiencing the evolution of the garden throughout the growing season. By the time you get into August it’s like Eden because the bird and butterfly life is awesome. It just keeps changing which is cool.”
This year Dan is growing watermelon, squash, mustard greens, beans, dahlias, marigolds, swiss chard and it’s his first year growing a tomato. Like many plot holders, he has found and transplanted some lettuce growing by the weed pit in the garden, and it is now thriving!
John and Arabella’s plot is right beside the plot of Dan Kipp who is originally from Massachusetts, but has been in Maine since 2014. While Dan grew up helping his mom in her garden, the practice has remained idyllic in his mind. Both growing his own food and having a project that’s outdoors are the biggest draws of gardening for him.
When he first came to Maine he was living in Portland and the local farmers’ markets were one of the first stepping stones in encouraging him to return to gardening himself. When he moved to Brunswick he began researching community gardens and stumbled upon the Tom Settlemire Community Garden, where he first started gardening last year.
“I remember being really anxious to plan it, wanting to make sure that I got it right. I put everything in by seed except for one lupin, already in bloom and put it right smack dab in the center. And I remember thinking okay, if none of these other seeds come up at least that lupin will” Dan shared. “Within a week the lupin was dead but on the plus side everything else came up so it was kind of funny.”
Whether a first time gardener has beginners luck like Dan, starting a plot from scratch can be nerve racking. Dan explained that although his successes of his first year have eased some of his anxieties, that every year in the garden brings new considerations and challenges:
“Last year everything went so well I almost expected it to be the same this year and this year that has not been the case…Even knowing it’s as simple as just water and weed, I was still worried about everything. Like, am I doing this right? Well this year I don’t feel that at all. So I think it’s really normal to feel it and once you start seeing stuff coming up already.”
Something that helped ease his initial anxiety was volunteering in the Common Good Garden, a portion of the TSCG grown by volunteers and donated to the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. Before Dan planted anything in his garden he made sure to volunteer at the CGG workdays on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to observe the growing process elsewhere before trying it himself. The Common Good Garden is filled with expert and master gardeners who not only provide tremendous support to the cultivation efforts but have abundant knowledge to share.
When Dan is not at the garden he loves to read, listen to music, exercise, and hang out with his two chihuahuas. However, to protect the plants and to make sure everyone feels comfortable gardening at TSCG, dogs are not allowed inside the Garden. Though the garden is largely a free and open space, there are a few important rules to maintain its beauty and community use. For example, sunflowers are not allowed to be grown in the garden because they can shade neighboring plots and their seeds can attract pests like mice and chipmunks which like to munch on other plants once they are in the garden.
Dan expressed that while these rules in the garden are not ideal for how he would like to grow in the garden, he understands their purpose: “The dog rule is a hard one for me…and the sunflowers but those aren’t complaints, they’re just disappointing. I don’t like it, but it makes sense, I get it.” Working in a community garden is sometimes about compromise and balance.
When I asked Dan about his favorite parts of the garden, he mostly gravitated towards the feeling of the space, from the physical impact of getting in the dirt to the psychological benefits:
“I do really like that swing by the picnic table because after crouching, I swing to flow and get a release. I really like physical movement generally, so I mostly enjoy the exercise part of [gardening] and encouraging growth. There’s like a giddy feeling that comes from when something’s first blooming yeah. I don’t know what that’s about, but I’ve talked to people who have been gardening their entire lives, they have said that to me as well, and that feeling doesn’t go away.”
From a range of experience to approaches to gardening, talking with Dan and John and Arabella revealed to me the wide range of gardeners we have in this space, with new and exciting stories just around the corner.
Dan’s Advice for a New Gardener: “The biggest thing I learned last year is how much there is to know. I also wanted this year to be more slowed down, less in a rush and big sweeps and when I come here, not just water, but to slow down for a second, to observe and see the changes between days. Learn from just those observations a little bit more.”
Arabella and John’s Advice for a New Gardener: “My advice for gardening and anything else in life is to simply just start with a few things. Before you expand wildly, just know you really can’t control what nature is pointed to. I think sometimes it is just an experiment, you might discover something that nobody else has. The beauty of the community garden is you can ask anybody for a tip or advice and they’re happy to share it.”