Back to their roots: South Portland residents seek community gardens

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SOUTH PORTLAND — There may be a thick blanket of snow covering the ground, but a group of residents have their minds focused on the fruits of the Earth.

Avid gardeners will petition the City Council on Monday night for a plot of land behind the former Hamlin School, at the corner of Sawyer and Ocean streets, to be used for community gardens.

The Community Garden Collective, a group of about half a dozen residents, would like to create an area where, for a fee, gardeners will be able to till the ground, plant seeds and harvest fresh organic foods in a city better known for its small house lots and sprawling commercial sector than its agricultural production.

“(A community garden) gives people whole, fresh, organic food to eat,” said Helen Slocum, a member of the collaborative. “It’s a great sense of accomplishment.”

The proposal is one of two agricultural initiatives the council will discuss in the coming weeks.

Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said she will soon pitch a proposal to create a farmers market in the city, which she hopes to have up and running this year.

“I think it’s going to fit nicely with this community garden, conceptually,” De Angelis said. “There’s some real energy around it.”

Slocum said her group is interested in creating community gardens in response to overwhelming demand for the limited space the city offers in Hinckley Park.

Siggi Espe, the administrative assistant in the Parks and Recreation office, said the city only has 35 garden plots at Hinckley Park, which are leased for $25 a year. The plots vary in size from 120 square feet to 64 square feet and smaller, she said. 

Espe said there 16 people are waiting for plots in the community garden, which was started in 1992 by a volunteer group, but taken over by the city in 2004.

Slocum said the Community Garden Collective would like to create between 30 and 50 plots behind Hamlin School, including two raised beds that would be handicapped accessible.

The group, which is in the process of getting its non-profit status, would charge between $25 and $35 per plot. Slocum said the money will be used to pay for water, which unlike the gardens at Hinckley Park, will be easily accessible.

Slocum said she became familiar with community gardens when she lived in the Jamaca Plain neighborhood in Boston. She said the gardens there produced more than food; it produced a sense of community.

“It helps bring people together of all ages,” Slocum said. “It tends to have neighborhood monitoring; people watch each other’s plots and watch the property around. They kind of keep an eye on everything.”

Slocum said the group approached the city last October to ask about potential garden locations. They drove to each plot before choosing the Hamlin School, which has access to water and good sunlight.

The group also considered prior land use, avoiding areas that may have contaminated soils, she said.

But De Angelis noted that the selected location is also close to the homes of the members of the collective. She said she hopes the group will make good on their intention to expand the gardens to the Brick Hill area, if the Hamilin proposal is approved and successful.

“They’re looking for ways to expand it so it encompasses the city as a whole,” she said.

The  Jan. 24 meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. in the Community Center.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]