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A Glimpse of Green Brings Gardeners Back to Ridgefield

April 9, 2011

by Kayla Germain

Sprouting onions offer Ridgefield Park gardeners hope that the season is arriving (Kayla Germain)

Springlike temperatures and early April rains have Albanians heading outdoors in the sunshine. As lawns are raked and lawn bags dot the curbside, Ridgefield Park Community Gardeners usher in the 2011 growing season – and dig.

The Ridgefield Park Community Garden is one of 24 gardens in Albany operated by Capital District Community Gardens and is home to 40-plus gardeners each year. The garden is already showing signs of spring.

John Schumacher, an Albany resident who has gardened at Ridgefield Park since 1995, has been getting his plot ready by raking up mulch and preparing soil. Walking around the garden, one can see that other gardeners have also been busy, some even have onions and garlic sprouting. The garden is gradually being reorganized and prepared for warmer weather – in fact this week temperatures are expected to be mostly in the 60s, with one day approaching 80. The proximity of the garden to Pine Hills residents makes the garden accessible, even just for a quick check in.

The Ridgefield Park garden is one of the most popular in the program. “People never leave Ridgefield once they start gardening there because it’s such a prime location,” said Will Malcolm, one of two garden organizers with Capital District Community Gardens. Located at 316 Partridge St, Ridgefield is within walking distance for most midtown dwellers and a short drive for others. Aside from the city owned ballpark, the surrounding area is mostly residential and many yards are not garden-friendly. Homes are too close together, with yard space and sunlight issues. Tree shade causes problems for many potential gardeners.

“Albany has an awesome tree planting program, they do a good job making sure they have trees, which are part of urban landscapes,” said Malcolm. “That being said, it makes it hard to have a garden.”

Holly Grieco and Drew Levy live nearby and are taking advantage of the Ridgefield garden for the second year in a row. “We could do a little gardening in our backyard, but there isn’t a lot of space and it doesn’t get a lot of sun,” said Grieco. “At the moment, the space we have in the community garden is actually bigger than our backyard.”

Garden in full growing season, 2010 (Courtesy- Holly Grieco)

Plots can be obtained for a suggested donation of $20 to the Capital District Community Gardens. Garden plots range in size, but are on average about 20×20 feet. From these plots an abundance and variety of produce is grown. Schumacher’s years of experience has developed his gardening expertise, and he is able to grow around 30 varieties of plants each season including peas, cabbage, broccoli, kale, garlic, tomatoes, tomatillos, herbs, and peppers.

Experienced gardeners like Schumacher offer guidance to newer gardeners like Levy. “In one year I feel I’ve learned a great deal about gardening from absorbing the knowledge of people around us,” said Levy. He and Grieco cultivated several varieties of produce last season, and are looking forward to experimenting with some new vegetables this year like leeks and brussel sprouts.

Some gardeners find themselves with excess produce, especially during prime gardening season from May to August. Rather than dispose of perfectly edible food, the Capital District Community Gardens created the “Squash Hunger” program, which allows gardeners to donate produce that goes to local emergency feeding programs. While the program is relatively new, the response from gardeners has been tremendous. According to Diane Peapus, Ridgefield Park gardener and coordinator of the site’s Squash Hunger program, 100 pounds of food was donated in 2009. In 2010, that number increased to 750 pounds. “It’s really been tremendous, 750 pounds divided by the 50 people here, it’s really not a huge imposition on any one person.”

Ridgefield Park gardeners can elect to dedicate rows in their garden to Squash Hunger, or simply donate whatever extra

Diane Peapus, Community Gardener, at the Ridgefield Park Community Garden (Kayla Germain)

they have. Peapus has designated a flag with a strawberry as the signal for Squash Hunger donations. If the flag is waving, produce can be loaded into the donation bin to be picked up by Peapus or another volunteer for delivery. The Ridgefield Park garden primarily donates to the Capital City Rescue Mission at 259 S. Pearl St. downtown, where it is used in their kitchen to feed the homeless and needy of Albany.

The Ridgfield garden, while surrounded by a community, has built its own community within. Schumacher, who now owns a home in Westland Hills, chose to keep his Ridgfield plot. The “social aspect of community gardening is mostly a plus,” said Schumacher. He said he has “developed some fond relationships over the years with fellow gardeners.”

Grieco, who moved to Albany in 2008, has also enjoyed the community aspect. “It’s really nice to have those connections and meet new people,” she said. “There are people who have been there for 15 years, 20 years, so I think there is a community that knows each other well.”

Original scan of The Albany Freeholder April 23, 1845 edition, with Agricultural section scanned from NYS Library archives

Some gardeners have been at the park since it opened in the late 1980s. The community garden was originally a vacant lot converted by the city of Albany and in 1998 was taken over by the Capital District Community Gardens. While Albany may not be much of an agricultural hub now, it was once home to many who farmed and grew their own produce. Spring’s arrival and the advent of seasonal gardening has attracted attention at least as far back as April 23, 1845, when The Albany Freeholder reported on the season’s arrival.

Much has changed since the 1800s, including gardening practices and the options available for gardeners. However, the Capital District Community Gardens works hard to maintain the land to be productive, for now and for years to come. To ensure this, the use of pesticides and other chemicals are prohibited and only organic gardening is allowed. “There are plenty of ways to manage pests or diseases organically just using the things that are around their garden, their neighborhood, to amend the soil,” said Malcolm. “Miracle Gro is like steroids for plants. It will work very quickly and give it a nice boost for the season, but actually depletes the soil over time.”

Factors like organic gardening, urban sustainability, and the activity of gardening itself draw in members looking for a certain experience. “All very much a lifestyle change, both for the outdoor activity and involvement with nature as well as for all the fresh food for one’s own delight and that of friends and family,” said Schumacher. Many gardeners enjoy the contribution they are making toward the environment. “It’s about as local as you can get if you grow it yourself,” said Grieco.

Regardless of the reason, community gardening is drawing in more and more people. Capital District Community Gardens is currently seeking space to satisfy demand and hopes to offer more opportunities within the Pine Hills. “Gardening is in fashion right now,” Malcolm said. “Everybody from Michelle Obama to your elderly neighbor. Which is great, we’re glad to see that, it’s about time” -30-


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