Plots Thicken: Leyland St. Community Garden doubles in size

Longtime gardener John DePinha holds up one of his prized zucchini. Photo by India Smith

They came from as far away as Stoughton and as close as next door. They came from Jamaica Plain, Roxbury and Mattapan. The destination? A celebration on Tuesday evening, July 15, at the Leyland St. Community Garden near Uphams Corner. Guests, including city officials whose support had been crucial to the project, hailed the expansion and renovation of one of the oldest and largest gardens owned by the Boston Natural Areas Network.

As gardeners tended to their plants, visitors strolled along rows of summer squash, beans, tomatoes and corn. Shima Baronian, who travels from JP several times a week to cultivate her plot, worked on a trellis to support her watermelon vine.

“The new plots here are bigger – 20x15 ft., “ she said. That gives her room to grow melon, something she has always wanted to do.

John DePinha, who has gardened at Leyland St. for over 30 years, was already harvesting summer squash. He pointed out the back porch of his house just beyond the fence.

“I raised seven kids there. We grew a lot of our food right here,” he said.

Meanwhile the staff of BNAN fired up the grill and volunteers from the Youth Conservation Corps served burgers, hot dogs and watermelon to all. Neighborhood residents who were not gardeners also joined the gathering, attracted by an invitation posted at the open gate. Many expressed curiosity about the space, which had looked increasingly run-down.

According to interim director Vidya Tikku, BNAN owns 175 community gardens throughout Boston. But in Dorchester, although it is Boston’s largest neighborhood with over 100,000 residents, there are many unused plots.

“Contrary to other neighborhoods, which had long waiting lists, we had a lot of vacancy in those gardens,” said Tikku. “One reason for that was lack of infrastructure – lack of signage, lack of well-built plots.”

Four years ago, BNAN received seed money from the Boston Public Health Commission to start the program called BIGG, Boston is Growing Gardens. The goal was to double the number of plots actively cultivated in Dorchester. BNAN has now upgraded 10 gardens in Dorchester, according to Tikku. The Leyland St. Garden originally had 39 plots, many in disrepair, and an abandoned play structure in the center. It is now double in size, with 67 plots under cultivation, and a waiting list.

A waiting list is a good sign, according to Dana Staley, garden outreach and engagement coordinator for BNAN. “That means people really want to be in the garden,” Staley said.

Designed by architect Peter Jackson, the new space has granite edging around plots, concrete paths that make it easy to get around, and two raised beds accessible for people with disabilities. BNAN has brought in new soil enriched with mulch from the city’s compost facility, installed new water lines and built fencing.

“We have a new leadership team in the garden as well,” said Staley. Elected by the entire group, coordinators Samuel Tavares and Manuel Brandao will enforce the rules and manage the garden day by day.

“We wanted to make sure the garden receives a lot of attention and care because we want it to be a tool for peace in the neighborhood,” said Staley.

A $217,500 grant from the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) provided major funding for the project, which cost 350K overall. DND chief Sheila Dillon, Felix G. Arroyo of HHS, Brian Swett of the Department of Environment, Energy and Open Space, John Barros of Economic Development and Christopher Cook of Parks and Recreation all provided crucial support, Staley said.

At the April 12 plot lottery, returning gardeners were guaranteed space. They could keep their old plot or choose a new one. The names of newcomers were then drawn from a hat to assign the remaining plots. Gardeners received their keys the same day. Most began gardening in April.

Annual dues are $20. Gardeners receive water, regular deliveries of compost, and seed packets for a variety of vegetables. BNAN also offers workshops. These include Organic Gardening for Beginners, Watering 101, and Composting. “We are also offering a season extension workshop, so people can learn to grow things into October,” said Staley.

BNAN requires everything to be done organically. That is already the case at Leyland St., where many gardeners come from farms in Cape Verde and Latin America.

“I got my best results with chicken manure,” bragged Samuel Delgado, who tended a plot at Leyland St. for 25 years. Delgado retired this year and now lives in Stoughton. But he visits frequently to spend time with his friends and see the new garden flourish.

His friend Rey Lopez has no plot himself, but helps the older gardeners. I’ll dig a hole, carry the hose, do watering – whatever they ask me to do,” said Lopez. He has fond memories of helping his grandfather grow lettuce in Puerto Rico.

“The garden is one place where older people can pass on their knowledge,” Lopez said.