Located on over four acres of land at 4 Church Lane, the East Lyme Giving Garden has an admirable mission to provide sustainably grown produce for those in need in our community, hoping to make a meaningful impact on local food insecurity. After one visit to the Garden, you’ll see firsthand that this group is accomplishing their goals in leaps and bounds.
In early 2020, the Garden found its humble beginnings at the historic Samuel Smith House. All produce grown that year – tomatoes, squash, beans, potatoes, peppers, beets and turnips – was donated to the Shoreline Food Pantry in Niantic, CT. The idea for the Garden was sparked by the East Lyme Agribusiness subcommittee, who had been thinking about starting a local food movement in town. After many discussions and careful consideration, the group decided to begin with a community garden. Mark Christensen, who’s on the Board of Directors of the Samuel Smith Farmstead, coordinated their use of 20 raised beds there.
They have since expanded to the large field on Church Lane owned by the Flanders Baptist and Community Church, allowing for a significant increase in the food grown. Their journey to plant, maintain, harvest and distribute this year’s produce in the new space was not for the faint of heart. Blood, sweat and tears and a whole lot of compassion has gone into the Garden you see today on Church Lane.
While the group was happy to get the project off the ground so quickly last year, they knew they didn’t want to operate with raised beds permanently. So, almost immediately their search began for other locations while getting established logistically as a group. The pandemic made it harder to organize, but they persisted through many Zoom meetings. The team was motivated by seeing how stretched food pantries became during the economic downturn.
The East Lyme Giving Garden brought a request to the Flanders Baptist and Community Church to use four acres of land they owned, located right across the road from them. They’re thankful to Rev. Alan Scott, who had been helping with the garden at the Samuel Smith House, for his support with facilitating the proposal. The land had been previously farmed but was not currently being used. The Church agreed and so the Garden and Pollinator Pathway of East Lyme are currently sharing the large 4-acre field. Board Secretary Lindsay Rush shared, “While the process seemed slow-going at the time, in hindsight it took the organization just about a year to go from a search for more land to receiving the church’s approval. That’s pretty incredible. And we couldn’t be more grateful for their ongoing support.”
With their expansion this year, more individuals joined the organization. The Board of Directors is currently made up of five members: John Holtz (President), Lindsay Rush (Secretary), Lisa Picarazzi (Treasurer), Liz Farley (Garden Manager) and Bruce Cohen (Site Operations Manager). Additional members of the core team include Mark Christensen (who owns Green Acres), Sally Uden (Master Gardener, also a Pollinator Pathway member), Denise Dinsmore (Master Gardener, Pollinator Pathway Member and the Giving Garden Volunteer Coordinator) and Steve Brooks (Safety Advisor). These nine individuals meet regularly to keep the farm running smoothly and the group focused on next steps. While no one in the group has farmed intensively before, their varied backgrounds make up a diverse and incredibly capable team.
This spirited and dedicated group has accomplished so much in such a short time. For the 2021 season, 8 rows (each 110’ long) are being farmed at their new location. Crops grown include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bush/pole beans, cucumber, carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and zucchini. With the increase in crop yield, the group has begun a new partnership with the United Way for pick-up and distribution of produce to those in need. As of mid-July, more than 800 lbs. of produce has been provided to United Way for distribution. Because the group does not currently have onsite refrigeration, produce is harvested and packed the morning of pick-up.
All food grown at the farm will be donated to fight local food insecurity. The statistics are staggering. East Lyme has an 8.7% food insecurity rate. Greater New London County food insecurity affects over 47,000 people. The CT Food bank estimates 1 in 4 children in our county will face hunger this year.
As President John Holtz recently addressed a crowd of supporters at the Garden, he said, “People can’t concentrate on work or looking for a job if they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and their kids can’t grow properly on a diet of processed food. You made that difference to a lot of people – some of whom were suffering invisibly in our midst. That should make you ALL feel good. I know we are immensely proud and grateful.”
The Giving Garden is exclusively organized and maintained by volunteers; there are no paid employees. External support by community volunteers is invaluable. Groups who’ve provided volunteers are the heart of the Garden. These include the Niantic Lions Club, Shoreline Leos Club, the East Lyme Rotary Interact Club, the Girl Scouts, Daisies and Boy Scouts who have all helped with planting and maintenance.
There are volunteers who come on a regular basis to pitch in, and the group always welcomes new folks who want to help. Lindsay says, “It’s astounding how much we can get done with so many helping hands.”
Weekly volunteers help with garden tasks like planting seedlings, weeding and harvesting. Because the group aims to grow with minimal to no pesticides and herbicides, it takes extra manpower to keep weed and pest pressure down so they don’t compete with the plants for water and nutrients. They use row cover on many of their crops. This helps protect seedlings during the cool weather in spring and also hide them from insects. Lindsay says, “There’s a reason that big ag uses so many chemicals – they make things faster and easier, but that’s not the mission of the Giving Garden. We try to be respectful of living in a natural balance and want to produce the healthiest food possible.”
Some of the volunteers are already excellent gardeners and love to share ideas and strategies. Because the group strives to be a resource to the community, they also welcome those who are new to gardening.
The Giving Garden is in the process of identifying volunteer jobs that will require specific skills outside of gardening – for example, organization, marketing, website development & maintenance and grant writing. The organization is thrilled to have your time, whether it’s one morning a month or on a more regular weekly basis.
In addition, they’ve been delighted to partner with many local businesses who have contributed building materials, gardening supplies and other essentials. It’s truly a community effort.
With help from local farmers, the group is learning how to transition from smaller home gardening to larger scale farming. For example, Huntsbrook Farm (Waterford) has welcomed the group on tours of their farm, inviting them to see different stages of their planting process and discussing irrigation systems. Provider Farm (Salem) generously donated some weed barrier. Massaro Farm (Woodbridge) shared their experiences as they took the group on a tour of their farm. Craig Floyd from Coogan Farm (Denison Pequot Nature Center in Mystic) has shared his extensive knowledge of regenerative farming and has patiently taken the group under his wing. Eastern Connecticut Community Garden Association raised many of the Giving Garden’s seedlings this spring, and they’ve provided advice that has been especially helpful in their first year.
The group has plans to further expand. When asked about short- and long-term goals, Lindsay jokes, “Our short-term plan is to survive the growing season!” This year, they’ll continue planting and harvesting into the fall months. At the same time, they’re working on other aspects of the business – volunteer recruitment and engagement, fundraising, identifying sources of grant funding, how to maintain an effective web presence and more.
The organization has already tackled some big challenges. This first year in the expanded space has required building and installing some basic infrastructure. Lindsay says, “This takes time and money – and then more time and money.” They’re so thankful for the great outpouring of support they’ve received from local businesses and individuals to help get them off the ground. They didn’t have access to water at first. A new telephone pole installed at the site provides the electricity needed to run the well pump. They have drip irrigation to help their crops while minimizing water loss. Their new space now boasts an office shed, an informational bulletin board and a washing station for veggies. They keep up with social media to keep the community informed. And they’re busy writing grants to fund future projects and are pleased to report they’ve been granted a few. All of this is in addition to the work that goes into planting, weeding and harvesting.
As John addressed the Garden supporters, he said, “Everything you see around you – the sheds, trellises, wood chips, flowers and vegetables, as well as many important things you don’t see like the compost and soil amenities in the rows, the electric and water lines under our feet – all of this has been accomplished with your help and support in less than a year. This is an amazing testament to the power of community and vision.”
There are 18 rows planned in the first area, of which they’re currently using 8, so it will be easy for them to scale up next year. The group is excited to tackle the 2022 growing season with many of these projects already completed.
After countless hours of brainpower as well as manpower, the group has never faltered from their mission to feed healthy food to those in need. They have more space available to them immediately behind the Garden. While it’s currently being used to grow pumpkins for fundraising, they are hoping to expand the garden in the next few years, along with the types of food grown. They hope to have a small refrigeration area someday. And they’d love to install a high tunnel, which can help extend the growing season into the fall/winter and allow them to grow seedlings onsite so they can get an early start in the spring. John says, “Our vision also includes using this space as a community gathering spot – a place for the whole town to gather and learn. One day, a pavilion will shield teachers and students from the sun while they learn about ecology, nutrition and positive social action right where it’s happening. Where the boots are on the ground. This ground.”
Please visit the East Lyme Giving Garden Facebook page to learn how you can help. Click on the Volunteer link where you can complete a form letting the group know of your interests and availability. You’ll receive regular emails with the Garden’s workdays and times listed. They’d love to have you join them!
To keep up to date on all of the Garden’s news, follow them on Facebook and Instagram and visit their website. Here, you can learn about their current needs and latest accomplishments. Monetary donations are tax deductible, used toward the good work being done and appreciated more than you will ever know.
Please note: the organization’s current insurance does not allow for young children to be onsite (even with their parents). Also, older children are not allowed to participate unless they are with their parents or part of an insured group.
East Lyme Giving Garden
About Our Main Street Blogger:
Joanne lives in, and loves, our community. She was looking for an opportunity to help share all that our local businesses do to make East Lyme such a special place to call home, and she is excited to contribute to our blog. Joanne brings to the role her experience from New London Main Street where she contributed content to their website, newsletters and email communications for many years.