Growing Season

Isles community gardens offer myriad benefits that only start with fresh veggies, fruits and flowers

Begin by imagining a map of Trenton, densely packed with a maze of streets filled with houses, businesses, office buildings. Then spot the map with up to 50 squares of bright green. These would be community gardens.
Facilitated since 1982 by Isles, the Trenton-based nonprofit community development and environmental organization, the gardens offer myriad benefits that only start with fresh vegetables, fruits and occasional flowers. In the course of tending neighborhood gardens and consuming their healthful produce, residents get a great deal more.
Besides eating better, they save money on food, learn more about gardening, meet and work cooperatively with people who live near them, get fresh air and exercise, and help clean the environment by growing plants that filter the air.  
In fact, each community garden can be seen as an “isle” in itself, producing its own fresh, healthy veggies and fruits. Each is a microcosm of the rationale behind Isles’ own name: “Isles is a metaphor for the concept of neighborhood-scale islands of development within a community.”
Every garden group governs itself. First, they choose a “head gardener,” the person Isles staffers can reach out to with questions or news and the one who holds the key for gardens that may be fenced in. Then they decide whether to go with one big garden or individual plots, as well as what will be grown there and who may share in the harvest.
From one to 10 city lots in size, the community gardens are leased by the year after a proposed garden site has been checked out and OK’d. It all begins when people — maybe a group of neighbors — express interest in a vacant piece of land as a potential garden site.
Working with the block and lot numbers, Isles reps first find out whether the lot is city-owned, which is preferable. The site evaluation that follows involves checking the property’s orientation vis a vis tall buildings and the sun, water access (is it comfortably nearby?) and trees (will they block the sun once they leaf out?). 
Considering Trenton’s industrial past, soil contamination is a major concern, with paint, brick and deteriorating lead piping as possible agents. The soil is also tested for heavy metals and fertility to assure plants can flower and set fruit.
If soil quality is the only problem, raised beds are a possible way around it. Although they create another level of cost, they come with benefits too. The soil will warm faster, allowing seeds to be started earlier. And weed control is easier.
And so the gardening season gets underway. Isles currently helps support some 33 city gardens and eight or nine in Trenton schools — about one-third of all schools in the city. But, says Isles’ Meredith Taylor, those numbers will be higher by May.
She would know that from experience. A person who tells “ job longevity time” by growing seasons, this is the beginning of her third growing season with Isles as senior project manager for community gardening and nutrition.
About half of those who attended Isles’ March 5 gardening kickoff meeting were new gardeners. But if Ms. Taylor wanted to enlist more recruits, she would need only recite the list of cool weather crops: cabbage, kale, leeks, onions, swiss chard, collard greens… By the time she finished, a line of wannabe gardeners would have formed.
Then, she could win over any “undecideds” with her list of warm weather crops: tomatoes, peppers, chilies, eggplants, melons…  She’d have them at “tomatoes.”
Isles is all about material support for the gardens, Ms. Taylor says. That includes providing starter plants and seeds, then offering technical assistance during the growing season. Because gardeners may not have garages, such things as wood chips and compost, as well as wheelbarrows, come from Isles. 
By Earth Day-week, cool weather crops have been planted — a combination of direct seeding and plants started earlier at one of Isles’ many partners. Inmates at the Jones Farm correctional facility start Isles’ seeds in their greenhouse so that by April, dozens of flats holding cool-weather crop plants come to Isles for distribution to community  gardeners. 
Come May, the same thing happens with hot-weather crops. In both cases, Ms. Taylor and Jim Simon, the garden specialist who works with her, notify all the head gardeners to arrange for pick up. 
“We have partners all over,” Ms. Taylor says, stressing how Isles depends on its many friends. Other examples: the Princeton restaurant enterprise that allows Isles to “squat” on about 4,000 feet of its huge garden, and Princeton Day School’s senior class members who broke ground there. And too: the regional farms that donate extra plants and seeds. 
Once the planting’s done, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Simon visit gardens to help problem-solve. They’ve devised a system for building compost bins with pallets as walls, and they encourage organic fertilizers and pesticides — many aimed at the harlequin beetle, a persistent garden scourge.
The adult gardeners don’t need how-to help, she says; in fact, she learns from them. They grow all kinds of greens and some even cultivate peanuts. Gardeners transplanted from Bangladesh bring their own bean varieties. 
Ms. Taylor’s role at Isles also includes grant writing and nutrition programming. “African Americans’ food can be on the starchy side,” she says, referring to how “Southern grandmothers” often prepare sweet potatoes with brown sugar, butter and even marshmallow.
She prepared sweets in a different way, then encouraged tastings. Her alternative, “Curried black beans and sweet potato skillet,” also included swiss chard, and at first she could read “This is not how I eat sweet potatoes” on gardeners’ faces. Then, for some, the tasting experience turned into a happy “ah-ha!” moment, she says.
Ms. Taylor’s long time food-focus includes two master’s degrees, in nutrition and food studies, and public health. Both her experience and education have proven to her that palates can most easily be influenced when people — especially young ones — have a hand in growing the food they’re eating.
Let’s hear it for “urban greening in common spaces” — aka cabbage, kale, leeks, and then tomatoes, peppers, chilies. And don’t forget endive, fennel and kohlrabi. 
Isles, Inc., is located at 10 Wood St., Trenton. The 22nd annual Isles House and Garden tour is scheduled for July 10. This year it will wind up with a barbecue at Trenton’s alternative high school, on Tucker Street, where there’s a new garden that includes a berry patch. 609-341-4700; isles.org
Freelance writer Pat Summers also blogs at AnimalBeat.blogspot.com