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Community gardening nurturing more than food

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Posted: Monday, September 10, 2012 1:40 pm | Updated: 2:42 pm, Mon Sep 10, 2012.

Sally Lehtinen says her garden is full of miracles Lehtinen, of Portland, tends a 10-by-15 foot plot at the Valley Street community garden in Portland. Since 2001 she has spent about 10 hours a week growing flowers and vegetables.

“It’s how I get in touch with my higher power,” she said. “I water it and tend it and all these miracles happen.”

Gardening is not a new pursuit for Lehtinen – she gardened as a child with her grandparents – but as an apartment dweller she has little garden space. Enter the city of Portland community gardens, an endeavor replicated by communities throughout greater Portland.

Joan Perkins, the city’s horticulturalist who has coordinated Portland’s community gardens for the past 16 years, said the increased popularity of community gardeningis based in part on “the economy, the interest in healthy environmental practices and food security.”

“Plus, it’s good exercise, and there’s the community piece,” she said.

Portland, with a total of 130 garden beds – rented for $35 each per year – has a waiting list of 80 people, said Perkins, who places yearly turnover at about 25 percent. According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, residents of almost 20 Cumberland County communities spend part of their hot summer days weeding, watering and harvesting their crop.

“It builds stronger communities,” said Diana Hibbard, a home horticulture coordinator at the Cooperative Extension’s Falmouth office. “It’s more than just a place to gather.”

Bill Hilton of Westbrook helped orchestrate construction of 86 raised beds at the Westbrook Community Center a year ago. Hilton, along with Martha O’Connor, floated the idea to the city’s recreation department. It dovetailed with a Home Depot outreach program and a $47,000 Home Depot grant later, Westbrook had its gardens. They are fully rented this season, Hilton said.

“A lot of people came out to help,” in developing the project, he said.

Hilton, who learned to garden from his grandfather, said the project has had its challenges: vandalism, deer, and pests. But he isn’t discouraged.

“We’ve made great strides,” he said.

Roy Rosenberg tends one of the new beds of the Community Garden Collective in South Portland. The organization’s 39 raised beds are located on Sawyer Road at the former Hamlin School.

Rosenberg, who was a charter member of the Cape Elizabeth community gardens more than 20 years ago, is now putting his vast gardening experience to work as a South Portland resident. His crop includes beets, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and herbs.

“I have zucchini like there’s no tomorrow,” he said.

Rosenberg is also trying his hand at Brussels sprouts. “I saw it in other people’s gardens and it looked so good I decided to grow some myself,” he said.

Gardeners’ harvests feed the gardeners. South Portland’s Rachel Burger said her plot produces “the only vegetables we eat.” But the crops’ reach extends far beyond the gardeners’ own tables.

In fact, in 2011 more than 293,000 pounds of fresh produce were donated to soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters and individual homes thanks to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Harvest for Hunger Program. Much of that produce came from community gardens, said Barbara Murphy, an educator for the Cooperative Extension and coordinator of Maine Harvest for Hunger. In fact, a total of 588 individuals contributed to the cause, she said.

Originally named “Plant a Row for Hunger” and started in 1999, the program was renamed last year, said Murphy. This year’s goal is 300,000 pounds of produce.

“Produce is such a wonderful benefit,” to families in need, Murphy said.

And because home gardeners “hate waste,” their crops can be fully utilized, she said.

Harvest for Hunger also has corporate sponsors. Idexx Laboratories, Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare and the Oxford Federal Credit Union all have employee-tended gardens, Murphy says. In addition, the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department has a 3-acre garden, tended by individuals in the criminal justice system, whose crop goes to the program, she says.

“The demand is so large, there’s a lot more work to do,” said Murphy.

“People are amazingly creative,” Murphy said. “Not everyone is a gardener but everyone is helping.”

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