The Alan Day Community Garden in Norway Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

NORWAY — Food insecurity has become a new normal for many across Maine, thanks to COVID-19. With the rapid spread of the virus and the loss of commercial food service as restaurants, resorts and cruise ships have gone dark, processing plants have closed their doors, dairy farmers have been forced to dump milk and vegetable growers have abandoned their harvests.

An immediate solution, albeit not one with immediate results, is a return to backyard gardening. Community gardens are preparing for a busy season ahead as enthusiasts expand their planting efforts and new gardeners have the incentive and time to make a nutritional lifestyle change.

The Alan Day Community Garden in Norway is in its 11th year of supporting grow-your-own vegetables for those without enough space or tools. Locals can lease space by the row, 20- or 40-foot lengths, to grow the food of their choice. Director Rocky Crockett says the ADCG can accommodate another 30 gardeners to join.

“People have started planting their plots,” Crockett said in an interview Monday morning. “The soil is workable now and gardeners are putting in hardier varieties, like spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard and peas.”

Access to the sheds and restroom is restricted for the time being and volunteers have not yet started on a regular schedule as ADCG is following safety protocols for social distancing. But Crockett said that anyone interested in growing their own food for the first time will get full support to get started.

“We strive to be as welcoming as possible,” Crockett said. “Especially for people who have not gardened before, the community garden is a great way to get started.”

The cost to lease a community garden plot for the season starts at $30. Crockett said that a 20-foot row will easily feed a family of two or three for the growing season. Organic seeds are available for sale onsite and the garden’s annual seedling sale is still scheduled for May 23.

“The sale is normally a kick-off event for us,” said Crockett. “With the uncertainty this year we are scaling it back to keep it as safe as possible. I encourage people to call us ahead with their order so we can pre-package their selections.”

The garden also keeps organic compost on hand for gardeners to utilize. Soil health is monitored through regular testing. Care of a plot is up to the gardener, including watering and weeding. Crockett said that growers who mulch their plots do not need to do as much maintenance and it makes watering less of a chore, too.

The ADCG provides a number of programs to learn about growing food and fostering healthy nutrition. There is a farmer’s market on Friday evenings in July and August with cooking demonstrations and sampling. During the week volunteers and youth leader participants are on hand to provide assistance to those with physical challenges and general gardening education.

Over at University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension in South Paris, Agricultural Professional Rebecca Long said that spring planting education is under way as well.

“We are holding an online series three days a week,” Long said. “We’re about halfway through the series so people can continue to attend over the next month. An Extension expert presents on a gardening topic and then holds a Q&A session. The workshops have been well attended, with 40 – 60 people logging in each time.”

No registration is required to attend the series, “Garden Chats: Growing Resilience from the Ground Up.” Sessions are held through Zoom conferencing. Visit https://extension.umaine.edu/gardening/gardening/garden-chats/ for workshop details and schedules.

Long said the Extension will also begin airing its “Victory Garden for ME” video series starting on May 1st. It will be a series of videos specifically for first time vegetable gardeners. She said anyone looking for resources on gardening should call the Extension’s Oxford county office 207-743-6329 or go online to https://extension.umaine.edu/gardening/.

Young’s Greenhouse in South Paris opened for early sales on April 25 and starts its regular 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily hours on May 1.

“It’s been busy and it’s still early,” said third-generation owner/manager Ben Young on Saturday. “Usually we don’t sell that much, but people are anxious, it’s a beautiful day and they want to get out and enjoy it. They’ve been saying that they’re sick of TV. They’ve been working in their yards and they’re ready to look around and buy a few things.

Vegetable seedlings taking root at Young’s Greenhouse in South Paris. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“Now is the time when you can put in plant broccoli, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard. Peas, carrots, onions, too. The colder weather veggies can go in the ground now. It won’t grow much because the ground is still cold. But you can put them in and have it done. You could plant lettuce. But it’s too early for most of the other plants.”

“A lot of customers are already asking to buy tomatoes,” said Young’s wife, Katherine. “We tell them it’s early for that. Everyone wants them. Some are worried that they’ll be sold out.”

Young added that there is no chance of that happening.

“We have over 6,000 boxes of just tomatoes,” he said. “We started planting them a week or so ago. We run the heat in the greenhouse at night at 60 so they’re growing 24 hours a day.”

Young said that despite the early spring it is still important to wait until later in May to plant most vegetables. In the Oxford hills region growers should expect frost at night right up until Memorial Day.

“Memorial Day is not late,” Young said. “The old farmers say you can plant as late as Memorial Day and it’ll still catch up.”

“We’ve started zucchinis, cucumbers, squash in the greenhouses now,” said Katherine. “They should be planted outside at the same time as tomatoes because a frost will take them.”

For people not up for a full garden commitment, Young’s Greenhouse sells patio tomato sets, with three plants per pot. They will also have patio mix boxes for sale this season, which combine the basics like lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.

“People love the patio pots,” said Katherine. “They like to be able to just go out on their porch and grab a fresh tomato. And the patio boxes are good for people who don’t have space for gardens. They come in a window-box sized planter and everything grows together.”

The Youngs expect to have a busier season than ever with grocery stores experiencing shortages and people venturing out less.

“People have been careful with their social distancing, even while waiting at the cash register,” said Katherine. “But we’ve got so much space it never seems crowded. If we have to later on, we’ll put signs on the greenhouse doors letting people know how many people can be in them at a time. With the restrictions in place we can have up to 15 people per house. With 13 acres of greenhouse it should be fine.”

 

 

 

 


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