Building Community Through a Garden

Dozens of bright yellow Goldfinches flew alongside as I made my way up the winding driveway past their meadows and into the heart of the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in Bloomfield. The high, wiry whistle of the birds sounded the alarm at my arrival. I parked behind the barn, and climbed the hill to the Foodshare Garden, a project of the UConn Extension Master Gardener program.

The UConn Extension Master Gardener Program has provided horticulture training and a community outreach component for the last 40 years. Master Gardeners are enthusiastic and willing to learn. They share their knowledge and training with others through community outreach projects.

The 120-acre 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm is a private, non-profit education center. It was deeded to the Connecticut 4-H Development Fund by the family of Beatrice Fox Auerbach in 1976. Over 15,000 students and family members participate annually in year-round 4-H curriculum-based school science programs, animal clubs, and Junior Master Gardening projects.

One of the Master Gardener volunteers is Marlene Mayes of West Hartford. She grew up on Tariffville Road in Bloomfield. The 1774 house was the only one left standing after King Philip’s War and later, was part of the Underground Railroad. The oldest of six children, Marlene spent her youth playing in the woods and building hay forts with her sister in the neighbor’s barn. Life often has a way of coming full circle, Marlene is back gardening in the same area of Bloomfield as the lead volunteer in the Foodshare Garden.

The Beginning

Marlene and student at Auerfarm
Marlene (far right) with a group of students at Auerfarm. Photo: Sarah Bailey

Marlene retired in 2001 from the Torrington Public School System, but wasn’t ready for full retirement, and became the School Administrator at Grace Webb School in Hartford. She also wanted to take the Master Gardener course, and the director at Grace Webb allowed her to use her vacation time for the Wednesday class each week from January through April of 2004.

“I was lucky to merge the ending of one phase with the beginning of another, and hook into something I was so interested in,” she says. The 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm was one of the group outreach assignments for Master Gardener interns.

“When we went up to the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in the beginning it was just a field, an overwhelming field. We started by weed whacking rows between the grass,” Marlene recalls. “There was no coordination, it was very frustrating. I decided to take over, and got my husband Ed involved and a couple of other guys. They weed whacked, mowed and rototilled for us.”

“Our goal is to raise sustainable, low-maintenance plants that people can replicate at home,” Marlene says. “We planted currants, elderberries and asparagus. The whole garden is about teaching and getting people to grow things in their own backyard.”

In 2006 Marlene and her group of volunteers at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm asked the Hartford County Extension Council for money to build raised beds, and began installing them. There are 50 raised beds in the garden now. The following year, she found herself serving on the Extension Council too.

“Sarah Bailey became the Master Gardener Coordinator for Hartford County the year after I began volunteering. She’s been supportive from day one, and we’ve also become very good friends. Sarah is a big part of creating that community around the program. She talks with us about problems and helps us find creative solutions. She has wonderful leadership skills. We also developed the Junior Master Gardener Program and conducted a teacher training for some school gardens, and developed curriculum for them to use.”

The Volunteers

The volunteer community in the Foodshare garden at 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm has a lot of fluidity; people come and stay for as long as they can. Marlene tries to plant something interesting every year to engage the volunteers. Many of the volunteers are consistent and have been with the program for six or eight years; for example, one gentleman is totally focused on the maintenance and has been coming for years to help with it. Over the course of a summer there will be 600 volunteers total working in the garden. High school students volunteer in May and June fulfilling the hours required by their school. These students often keep volunteering after their hours are done.

“There is a sense of community and excitement to whatever it is we’re doing at the garden; every day is a new day,” Marlene says. “We had a woman come with her son this summer, and she stayed while her son was volunteering. They were planting a new succession of beans, and she said, ‘This is fun!’ – it’s really neat to get that reaction from adults. You’re up there almost next to the sky when you’re working in this garden.”

The volunteer schedule hasn’t changed since Marlene took over in 2004. Volunteer days are Thursday and Saturday from 9-12, unless it’s raining. In the hot weather the volunteers take more breaks and use the benches. The benches also enhance the meditative function of the garden.

Thursday is harvest day and Saturdays are for maintenance. Marlene’s husband, Ed, loads up the car on Thursday and takes the produce to Foodshare. “Ed has been a consistent back-up for me all of these years, I couldn’t have done it without him,” Marlene says. “Our son Tim has also helped with maintenance.”

“We’ve met people from all over the world in the garden,” Marlene continues. “It’s absolutely amazing. African exchange students in the agricultural business program at UConn come up every summer. We learn a lot by comparing notes. We also had a fellow Master Gardener from an Israeli kibbutz who was very interesting to talk with.”

In 2017, the garden produced 4,423 pounds total that was donated to Foodshare. This year, the volunteers are measuring donations by the number of meals, although Marlene notes that the total may be lower because of weather related challenges.

The Gardens

The Foodshare garden is ¼ acre. Two years ago Marlene fundraised for a fence for the garden because the deer were eating everything. Now the challenge is the

raised bed in foodshare garden
A raised bed in the Foodshare Garden. Photo: Stacey Stearns

woodchucks and the rabbits.

The Medicinal Garden, Greenhouse and Herb Garden were all funded by UConn Extension. Marlene designed the circular herb garden. Funding for projects that the Master Gardeners complete at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm is from UConn Extension, the Connecticut Master Gardener Association, or fundraised from private donors. Even the seeds used to grow the garden are obtained through donations.

Projects are implemented in phases. The greenhouse was built with funds from a grant by an anonymous donor to the UConn Foundation who greatly appreciated what the Master Gardeners are doing through their community outreach. The first-year volunteers had to haul water up the hill in buckets from the kitchen. This year, irrigation was installed for the greenhouse, solving the water problem.

“You keep learning as you go – mechanics, botany, pest management and whatever else is needed. We all work together as a team,” Marlene says. “It’s not a one-person thing. We’re all passionate about gardening, creativity, and work together to make it happen.”

“It never stops at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm; something is going on all of the time. If you tie into any part, it’s fascinating. Everything is research-based, the greenhouse is always a research project. We also have to factor in daylight hours, watering schedules, and how many growing seasons we can fit in each year. There is enthusiasm for wherever the problem we have to solve is.”

The next challenge for this intrepid group of volunteers is figuring out how to run the greenhouse in the colder winter months. The cost of propane has been a challenge; however, the group wants to donate consistently to Foodshare throughout the year. They are discussing raising house plants or some sort of tropical that can be sold as a fundraiser, and used as a teaching tool for the students that visit the farm each year. Tomatoes and peppers will be transplanted from the garden into the greenhouse this fall, and microgreens will also be raised for Foodshare.

Marlene also wants to continue expanding the medicinal garden and the educational component around it. Native American medicinals fascinate her as she discusses how it’s never a single herb, and always a combination of herbs.

“Our volunteer work at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm is never boring, and I’m not tired of it yet,” Marlene concludes. “The Master Gardener program creates a sense of community and camaraderie. There is no judgement, everyone works together and has a sense of responsibility – it’s very binding in a nice way.”

Applications are currently available for the 2019 UConn Extension Master Gardener program. Classes will be offered in Stamford on Mondays, Haddam on Tuesdays, Farmington on Wednesdays (an evening class), Bethel on Thursdays, and Brooklyn on Fridays. Applications are due by Tuesday, October 9th. More information can be found at mastergardener.uconn.edu.

To learn more about volunteering in the Foodshare Garden at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm for the 2019 growing season email Sarah.Bailey@uconn.edu or call 860-409-9053. To make a donation please visit http://s.uconn.edu/givemg.

Article by Stacey Stearns