When Marilyn Chiarello, founder of Edible Brattleboro, saw a free hoophouse frame offered on a local listserv, she started dreaming. A place for the organization to start seedlings for its neighborhood ‘help-yourself’ gardens. Seedlings to share with the community. A place for people to start their own seeds, maybe with workshop days. A chance for other community members to get involved. But she needed to get that hoophouse, so she said‚“yes“ to the offer from Fertile Fields Farm in Westmoreland, NH and then persuaded her organization’s board it was a good idea.
Edible Brattleboro started in 2015 after Chiarello, a former elementary school teacher and vegan chef, watched Pam Warhurst’s TED Talk, “How We Can Eat Our Landscapes.” For the past five years she and fellow volunteers have been growing food in public spaces, such as the grassy area between the Brattleboro Food Coop parking lot and the Whetstone Brook. Food is free to community members, who are invited to help themselves. Edible Brattleboro now has several gardens around the scenic Vermont town, and gives away produce on Sundays at its Share the Harvest stand. They also put on workshops on composting and gardening, and more recently, ran a canning workshop using tomatoes grown in the greenhouse at the Hilltop Montesori school, shut down in the spring by the novel coronavirus. A hoophouse for plant starts seemed like a natural fit, and the board was persuaded.
But where to put it? After an initial offer fell through, Chiarello approached the new food hub at the Retreat Farm which had the perfect space next to the community garden along the West River. The location is less than a mile from the center of Brattleboro, with a sidewalk running most of the way. The Retreat Farm’s own market garden and farm stand are also nearby. Some Americorps volunteers helped take down the hoophouse frame, the Rich Earth Institute transported it, and it now awaits permitting. The plan is to get the hoophouse put up this winter and start growing plants this spring.
In its proposal to the Retreat Farm, Edible Brattleboro indicated that a governance committee is expected to include representives from the Retreat Farm, Edible Brattleboro, gardeners with plots in the community garden, and possibly members of the general public, will establish procedures for usage. Chiarello says, “The vision is to start seedlings in the spring to get a jump on the season and possibly grow tomatoes as we did this year in the greenhouse at Hilltop Montessori.” Their grant application includes a stipend for a greenhouse coordinator to make daily visits and make sure everything gets watered.
Meanwhile in Chester, VT, another ambitious community greenhouse project is underway, this one the brainchild of Robert Nied, who moved to Vermont from upstate New York three years ago to take a job. A lifelong northeast gardener, Nied found that having a greenhouse of his own extended his growing season and allowed him to grow produce he hadn’t succeeded with in the past, such as eggplant.
A trip that took him by the community gardens made him wonder, “Why not a community greenhouse?” He shared the idea with fellow Chester residents Melody Reed and Cheryl Lipton on their weekly Zoom meeting called Victory Gardening in the 21st Century, and they liked the idea.
Then opportunity struck. Deconstruction Works of West Dummerston, VT, a company specializing in green demolition and recycling of houses, outbuildings, and interiors in Vermont, New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts, was taking down a 100 by 32-foot antique greenhouse in Walpole, NH. The building dated to the 1930s. Wreathmaker and florist Robert Woodward, having been flooded out of his Westminster, VT location twice in a decade, decided to move across the river to higher ground. The galvanized steel and iron frame was free for the taking, if the community garden organization could transport and house it. Chester selectboard chair Arne Jonynas offered manpower, and vice chair Heather Chase provided temporary storage in her barn.
The next challenge is fundraising, and finding the ideal location. Creating a new foundation for the greenhouse is projected to cost $150,000-$175-000. Around three acres are required to provide space for outdoor plots as well as the greenhouse itself, and the organization hopes to acquire land near the center of town, with access to the public water supply. Some donations and grants have already come in, and more are being sought. The greenhouse will be ADA-compliant in at least one section, so gardeners with disabilities will be able to access the resource.
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Vermont.
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