The Waltham Field Station is known for its exceptional soil, which local growers have always shared. Historically, university demonstration plots were maintained alongside horticulturalists’ greenhouses and commercial fields. Now, non-profit farmers share the growing space with climate change scientists and community gardeners. This summer, Green Rows of Waltham, the community gardeners’ organization, celebrates its 25th growing season. Since 1994, the members of GROW have gardened in the westernmost corner of the station, volunteering their time, resources, and creativity to protect and cultivate the historic soil.
GROW began with a groundbreaking team of eleven but has since expanded to a community of over 100 families (60 local to Waltham) and 140 garden plots. Additionally, two plots are maintained by local non-profits. Two shared sheds stand to the side, one featuring a bat box built by local girl scouts. In between them, a pavilion and rescued picnic table provide gardeners an escape from the sun or rain. Scattered throughout the plots, water spigots installed by volunteer hands stand ready for hoses or buckets. Each individual plot is decorated and customized to gardeners’ tastes with flags, signs, and even a large plastic cow, creating a mosaic effect on the land.
On one sunny Saturday morning, I was able to speak with Kathy, a GROW gardener of seven years and leader of three, in between tasks on her busy gardening to-do list. Up first, of course, was a tour of her beautiful plot. Tomatoes, zucchini, mint, and dill shared soil with more unusual native plants, including chickweed and Jerusalem Artichoke. Wild, native plants, Kathy told me, are her favorite to grow because of their low maintenance and high return. “They’re perennial,” she explained with a laugh, “and they just appear!”
In addition to her own plot, Kathy has many responsibilities as a GROW leader. In order to keep the garden up and running, gardeners are divided into work teams which schedule days to complete important tasks. Kathy leads the raspberry team, but other teams work on the water system, composting, carpentry, mowing, and maintenance. In addition, she serves on the Steering Committee, a team of seven gardeners who oversee garden administration. As a part of that committee, Kathy represents GROW as a tenant of the field station, advocating on behalf of her fellow gardeners for the future of the space. In her seven years with GROW, she told me, that advocacy is what has changed the most. “The threat to the stability of the land” has her seriously concerned, and it adds a “layer of challenge” to the immense effort of growing organically. GROW is a unique group to represent, as unlike other tenants, it is not an organized non-profit agency, but rather a coalition of community members with different backgrounds and experiences.
Though such a coalition can be challenging to represent, that is also what Kathy loves most about GROW. With a diverse population of gardeners, “there’s food from so many cultures,” and the resulting exchange strengthens the community. The yearly potluck is always spectacular, as gardeners proudly showcase their hard work and favorite home recipes. One type of produce, however, is clearly the favorite among all GROW gardeners. “Tomatoes!” Kathy enthuses. “They just taste so much better when fresh!”
The whole of the Waltham Field Station is important to GROW’s success. Because of the nutrient-rich soil, gardeners were able to grow a total of three tons of produce last season. This was possible because the station sits on an alluvial plain. Its soil was formed when silt, sand, and organic matter were deposited by moving water into a now dried-up riverbed. As a result, the soil is higher in nutrients and more porous than most locations. When treated well, and not over-farmed, alluvial soil is excellent at fostering plant growth. Additionally, the field station gets ideal sunlight, with open space that most backyards cannot replicate. Its location is also helpful: it is rare for community gardens to be close to the city. I spoke with one gardener, Jane, who is enjoying her first year with GROW. Her other plot, located at a community garden in Newton, will soon be lost to a construction project. Clearly, GROW’s accessibility is crucial and unparalleled.
Kathy also pointed out the symbiotic relationships of the station’s many tenants. Gardeners may pre-order seedlings from Waltham Fields Community Farm annual seedling sale. The sale allows the Farm to anticipate the yearly demand for seedlings and provides gardeners with a familiar source of organically grown plants. Additionally, City Councilor Cathyann Harris keeps beehives on the edge of the garden plots, which pollinate gardeners’ plants and make honey to be shared. These connections couldn’t be made anywhere else, because they are formed and strengthened over Waltham Field Station soil. In the upcoming summer months, community gardeners will come as individuals or in teams to cross off tasks on their gardening to-do lists. Thanks to the soil and the hundreds of volunteer hands which protect and cultivate it, GROW will prepare for its biggest season yet.
If you are interested in starting a plot at GROW, check out their website or contact Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please keep in mind that GROW has a waitlist of interested gardeners, but the waitlist is always open for new names to be added. Finally, contact your local and state legislators. Advocate for the long-term survival of the Waltham Field Station, so that its soil and its many growers can stay protected.
By Anneke Craig, Boston Area Gleaners Intern