Susie Duffy-Ticknor of Groton, remembers two years ago when she “received” her garden from Growing Places, “The experience has been multi-dimensional. Having the support of the team to help me create a garden was amazing; it was just what I needed because I wanted to do a vegetable garden but I didn’t know how to do it.”
Growing Places Garden Project, a non-profit serving 22 north central Massachusetts communities, provides gardens and support to eligible individuals, families, and groups. Over the years, Growing Places Garden Project has planted 8 gardens in Groton, and welcomed many volunteers, including members of the First Parish Church. Now entering their eleventh year of service, the invite the public to celebrate the harvest at The Barn at Gibbet Hill on October 4 from 5:30-8:00 p.m. This fundraising event features guest speaker Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm, and appetizers from several area venues, in addition to the seasonal delights provided by Gibbet Hill.
Duffy-Ticknor learned about the program through a friend. “The application process was very simple. Basically, they were looking at the number of people in my household and my income level. I had to qualify in that regard. I qualified and they came out and were really supportive. They created the beds for me; they brought over the soil, and then started me off with seeds. And there was a mentor that came and helped me the first season to plant my seeds. It was amazing. I had a great crop and was able to freeze some of my vegetables and have them later on in the year. It was wonderful, because I have a younger son who was able to experience things growing, and to pick things right off the vine and then he would taste them. It is so satisfying for me to be able to grow and pick fresh, organic food off my own land and present it to my children. It’s so fulfilling.”
Joanne Foster, Executive Director of Growing Places, credits the founders, Kate Deyst and Cindy Buhner, with laying the groundwork for a successful organization. Foster stated, “They were very, very intelligent, super-intelligent women who created a structure of policies, procedures, a financial structure that really set us up to be strong for the future.” Foster has been involved in non-profit work for twenty-five years and knows how rare it is to find a small, relatively young organization to be so strong. “No doubt their passion for gardening is embedded in everything we do.” Foster maintains, “They’ve created that culture. People come to Growing Places, whether they are volunteers, or staff, including myself, because they believe that gardening changes lives. They believe that everybody should have access to fresh healthy foods and should have the ability to grow food, in any manner that they can.”
Gaynor Bigelbach, the garden program coordinator, is the only other paid staff. This year the organization is benefiting from a grant-funded position, awarded by the Corporation for National Community Service, which will last three years. Beyond that, a dedicated board of directors, about 100 core volunteers, and relationships with area businesses.
Every year, the number of beneficiaries increases. This summer they installed 39 garden sites, which support 56 households.
“We’ve done a number of community gardens and school gardens,” Foster explained, “How it works is: we work through partners; that’s our approach. (They) could be existing community- based non-profits, senior centers, low-income housing developments, municipalities. Some we’ve had long-standing partnerships with, some have heard of us through word of mouth and contact us and say ‘we’d really like to create an opportunity for our residents to garden and we heard about you’.” For example, they were contacted by a privately managed low-income housing development in Leominster and they worked with them and installed 18 raised bed gardens for families who are gardening there now.
Growing Places is very resourceful when it comes to finding space for their gardeners, many of whom live in apartments. “We’re working a lot with people who don’t have space for gardening. The raised bed method allows for people to grow a lot of food in a little bit of space. The other tool that we’ve used over the past few years is container gardens, because you can fit a container almost anywhere. The only thing that we require is sun and water; we don’t need a large space. We have used containers with some of our seniors, who can’t manage a raised bed. It gives them a bit of fresh food, and it also gives them a lot of joy.”
After the first season, when Growing Places provides all the materials, know-how, and regular contact with a mentor, the second season relies more on the new gardener. For Susie, whose first growing experience was very positive, the second season, just completed, was more challenging, “there were so many bugs this year!” she exclaims, but is determined, “I’m definitely going to continue. I think I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve learned so much about soil. I feel better prepared about what things I’m going to plant, and where I’m going to plant them. I’m excited, actually, for next season. I feel like this past season was a real big learning experience. The first season was so magical, and then I learned more.”
During the second season, instead of being provided a mentor, Duffy-Ticknor says, “There was a woman who was available for me to email, and I’d send her pictures of the pests I had on my tomatoes and she’d give me information on how to handle it.” They send out email updates, and keep participants involved for as long as they like. Many gardeners become mentors, passing along their knowledge helping someone who is a novice as they once were.
Duffy-Ticknor is looking forward to becoming a mentor, but feels she needs more experience first. As a working single mother with four children, it may take some time, but, she says, “ I would love to be able to give back the same experience that I’ve had.”
To find out about eligibility, volunteering, and some of their other programs and partnerships, please go to the website: growingplaces.org
Tickets to the Garden Fest last year sold out and are expected to sell out again for the October 4 event this year. Tickets are available through the website, or by calling