A Community Effort
Where gardeners gather to grow their own.
Pity the would-be gardeners who have long dreamed of growing heirloom tomatoes in their backyard. Discouraged by the many obstacles that bedevil them here in Wilton—too much shade, hungry deer, and thin, rocky soil—they resort to store-bought vegetables instead. Yet, there are those who refuse to admit defeat. For these tenacious growers, Wilton’s community garden at Allen’s Meadow is a veritable sanctuary, offering optimum growing conditions, a peaceful setting, and the camaraderie of like-minded individuals.
“I always wanted to garden, but it didn’t work at my house,” says Emma Sutherland, who has maintained a garden at Allen’s Meadow for the past two years. “There wasn’t enough light, there were too many critters, and it’s much more social at the community garden.” During the height of the growing season, Emma harvests an assortment of vegetables, including carrots, beans, corn, peas, eggplants, melons, and tomatoes, as well as herbs, pumpkins, and gourds. The companionship of others and the knowledge they share amongst themselves is one of the key selling points. “When I put up my fence, I started digging a trench below it to fill with chicken wire, so I could keep the critters out. But then Ira Kraus came over and said, ‘Forget it—that’s too much work!’ and told me to lay the wire flat on the ground next to the fence instead to keep the larger animals from burrowing under it. It worked!” Emma marvels.
Kraus’s experience and generosity with his heirloom vegetable plants has garnered him near cult status with the rest of the gardeners. “Ira is a farmer and really knows what he’s doing,” says Ethel Sebastian, who has tended a garden there for two decades. “I learned from him that when the ends of the watermelons are dry, they’re ripe,” she says. “We all share plants and ideas. You can have a conversation with the person gardening in the plot next to you and commiserate if things don’t turn out right.”
Given the enthusiasm of those who garden at Allen’s Meadow, one would expect a stampede of residents clamoring for a plot, yet that is hardly the case. Located unceremoniously across from the town’s large dirt pile, in the meadow behind The Greens at Cannondale, the garden goes virtually unnoticed. Although the garden has been in its present location since 1975, most parents watching their children play soccer a few hundred feet away have no idea it exists. Unlike community gardens in Westport, Darien, and Norwalk, which boast their own websites and waiting lists, Wilton’s is decidedly low-key. Set on an acre and a half of land, it consists of roughly 40 plots, available to residents through the Parks & Recreation Department on a first-come, first-served basis for a nominal fee. The town plows the land in early spring, making it easy for gardeners to sow their crops in the loose soil.
In years past, the community garden was largely under-utilized. According to Pat Sidas, who has gardened there for over 20 years, many would-be gardeners were discouraged by the lack of a convenient water source for their plants. “There used to be a hand pump, but it was stolen, and after that the well was vandalized. A lot of people threw in the towel,” she recalls. “But two years ago, the town installed a spigot that runs on town water, and people can hook their hoses up to it. Now we have a lot more people gardening here.” To be sure, maintaining a garden plot at Allen’s Meadow is still a lot of work. Unlike the community gardens in neighboring towns, Wilton’s garden is unfenced. Yet, Wilton’s offers several significant advantages over the other community gardens. To begin with, double plots measuring a spacious 20 feet by 50 feet provide ample room to plant a variety of crops, including those, like pumpkins and melons, which love to sprawl. For a gardener like Ethel, who grows 42 different types of tomatoes as well as other vegetables, the generously sized plots are a godsend. “This is such a good place to garden. It’s sunny all day long, and the soil is really good,” declares Pat.
Jim Hunter, who teaches environmental science at the high school, concurs. Each year, his students perform tests on soil samples taken from various spots at Allen’s Meadow, and their results reveal the site to be a true gardener’s Eden. “The garden sits on a flood plain, so it has rich, fertile soil,” he explains. “The topsoil there is really thick, anywhere from eight to sixty inches deep, and it doesn’t have a lot of rocks in it,” he says. “And it has a ton of nutrients in it.”
It’s no wonder, then, that the gardens are so prolific. Witness the bounty fairly bursting from Pat’s garden—rows and rows of brightly colored marigolds and zinnias, and a wide assortment of vegetables. “This year, I grew ‘Silver Queen’ and ‘Golden Bantam’ corn, pickling cukes, and ‘Straight Eight’ cucumbers,” she says, with obvious satisfaction.
As the gardeners are quick to point out, the produce is just one of the many rewards the garden offers. “I find it to be very relaxing—like therapy—and it’s a great family experience,” Ethel says.
Echoing her sentiments, Emma adds, “It’s so peaceful here. It really slows down time for me.” And ultimately, the garden offers her a sense of accomplishment. “I’ll stand in my garden and think, This is mine!”