A matter of turf: Gardeners await fate of plots

A now-dormant gardening group that once helped pioneer the city's urban farming movement may spin off six neglected Dorchester garden plots to a new steward.

The group, called Boston Urban Gardeners or BUG, hit hard times in the late 1990s, ceased doing business, and then earned nearly $450,000 from the sale of their headquarters building in Jamaica Plain in 2000. They have debated what to do with the money ever since, frustrating gardeners who want funds for improvements.

"We're still trying to find someone to take over the gardens," said Helen Strieder, BUG's treasurer. "We've had some good discussions with [Boston Natural Areas Network] BNAN. They've made a proposal and we're pondering if this would be the right move."

In 2002, similar negotiations between the two groups broke down when BUG would not agree to include a sum of $80,000 with the properties, money that BNAN said was necessary to make them operational. On Monday, Strieder characterized this apparent stalemate as a miscommunication. BUG's aim, said Strieder, is to retain enough funds to create something along the lines of a foundation that would grant money out to groups interested in creating new gardens, with less focus on existing infrastructure needs.

Executive director Valerie Burns confirmed that BNAN is in new talks with BUG, but declined to comment on details of any proposal. Separately, BNAN recently entered into an affiliation with the Trustees of Reservations, a statewide group with over 100,000 acres of land, none of which are gardens, and a large endowment.

"It's more of a partnership, it isn't actually cash," said Burns. "It doesn't give us more financial power."

What it does give, she said, is more ability to maintain the gardens they have. For 14 gardens BNAN already operates in Dorchester and dozens of others in the city, the Trustees lend out a truck with a small maintenance crew one day a week. The Trustees are also represented in the BUG talks.

Meanwhile, BUG's Dorchester gardeners have needs that aren't being met.

"I was asking for soil two years ago," said James Moore, who has cultivated space in a BUG plot at 10 Josephine St. for over 27 years, ever since it was first created. "That's not asking for too much, a fence, a gate, some soil, or some treatment if you're not going to get the soil. I'm not going to go around and ask them for it. But that'd be a good idea, if that's what the money's for."

Rusty chain-link fences guard many of the Dorchester plots, leaving well-tended crops to distinguish gardens from vacant lots. Two gardens are on Josephine Street. One each are located on Bullard and Barry streets. A vacant lot on 141 Westville St. is owned by BUG, but is not being considered by BNAN, and a small park at 10 Torrey St. is still questionable, said Burns, because it is not a garden.

"We have seen increased gardening activity in some of the BUG gardens this year," said Burns. "I think if there was a more active partner there would be more interest from those neighborhoods."

Last year in Jamaica Plain, BUG's largest garden, the Southwest Corridor Community Farm, staged an insurrection of sorts. After learning that BUG had not held a public annual meeting in years, gardeners from the farm called a BUG annual meeting and elected a BUG board of its own. They threatened legal action. To deal with the new group, the original BUG board expensed a legal advisor and eventually the two boards began meeting to discuss a resolution. The pseudo-BUG board is holding a second annual meeting on Sept. 15 to elect new members.

Dorchester Gardenlands Preservation (Gardenlands) has also gotten in the mix. Strieder said BUG had received a proposal from Gardenlands for taking over the plots, but Joe Ureneck, president of of the Dorchester-based organization, characterized it as one sit-down meeting, no proposal. As to the possibility of a Gardenlands takeover, Ureneck replied: "That's an option. Nothing's been decided at this point. My guess is they'll still retain some control of it."

On Gardenland's to-do list for the BUG properties are new fences, bringing in a tractor to turn over the soil, new signs with info on how to garden, and outreach to the youth at the Vietnamese Community Center.

Gardenlands began in the 70s around the same time BUG began, and also ran into financial problems in the 90s. Taxes were not deducted from some DGP paychecks, according to Ureneck, and the Internal Revenue Service came knocking. To raise money, the organization sold off properties, including one plot that was sold to the city and became the Stanley Bellevue Urban Wild on Meetinghouse Hill, and another at Dorchester Avenue and Banton Street that became a set of retail stores. Gardenlands owns only three gardens today, said Ureneck.

BUG was founded in 1976 by activists who were responsible for organizing some of the first community-created grassroots gardens in the city earlier in that decade. Dirt was trucked in from suburban locations in large events called "earth moving days," where bands played, elected officials spoke and large amounts of food were consumed.

Pre-2000, BUG offered workshops, held community events and aided farmers fixing up plots. Today, they continue to pay water bills on their total of seven properties, but offer little else in the way of direct assistance.

The pseudo-BUG board will meet Sept. 15, 5 p.m., at the Stony Brook Gardens Community Room located at 99 Lamartine St. in Jamaica Plain.