Phoenix Community Garden Brings Neighbors Together
It was barely 9:30 a.m., but Nariya was already tending the tomatoes, broccoli, corn and tender shoots of chard in the plot she cleared just two months earlier at Phoenix Community Garden. The whole plot, she complained, “got rained out,” and she was trying to save it.
Nariya was the first to arrive that Saturday morning at the 19,000-square-foot garden in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Soon others flocked in. Benjamin MacMichael, the lanky supervisor of the garden’s prolific flower patch, readied hoses for the morning watering, while Ruby Wheeler, a longtime backyard gardener, checked her plot and that of her gardening buddy, Ellis Simmons.
“We help each other,” Ruby said of Ellis, as she pointed to the tomatoes and large heads of green and red cabbage that grew in her plot.
People tend to come together at churches and civic and community centers. But here, in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, people are gathering around a vegetable garden, once a vacant lot.
Jerry Summers, director and one of the founders of Phoenix Community Garden, says that “bringing people together” is what he most enjoys about the garden. The young garden—it opened in October 2006—has 45 members and last year donated 2,000 pounds of food to a neighborhood soup kitchen.
Jerry recalled the sweat that went into clearing the lot of debris. “There were bricks and stones embedded in the lot,” said the retired New York City bus driver and veteran of the Army Reserve.
Back for the first time after a one-month convalescence from surgery, Jerry looked fit and dapper in a black-and-white striped shirt. He spoke to a woman everyone called Miss Lewis, the garden elder, guru and coach who looked after Jerry’s plot and put stakes in his tomato plants while he was away.
The gardening goodwill was pervasive. Two-year garden member Maggie Joyner talked about her mentor, Herbert. “He showed me everything,” she said. Though Maggie was raised in the South, she didn’t know much about gardening, much less the important secret to growing good crops: knowing how to “dig in the roots.” But Herbert taught her.
Now Maggie grows kale, corn, tomatoes, ochre, and sweet and red peppers. “It gives you an uplifting feeling to come out and see that people are involved in the community,” she said.
The sense of community even fired up a little competition among the gardeners. Everyone wants to have the greenest, “most flourishing” plots, noted Nariya. The gardeners are “growing food for show,” she said, pointing to the plots with crops that towered over the others.
As Nariya scooped and patted down compost around the base of two cherry tomato plants that she planted for her twin granddaughters, she complained about all the work the plot demanded.
“It’s really time-consuming,” she said, explaining that she has to water and weed the plot everyday. And preparing a plot for a first-time planting, she noted, is backbreaking labor. Nariya spent the previous weekend digging up a new plot that she planted with beans. “It takes muscle to get them down.”
Still, she doesn’t look back. Now that she’s a member, she no longer peers into the garden from the fence as she used to do when she came off the C train. Now she can come in and garden. “It’s good to have a hobby away from work and children,” she said. “It’s good to grow your own food. Food is very expensive.”
Entry filed under: City Farmers, Community Gardens, Urban Agriculture. Tags: Benjamin MacMichael, Brooklyn, Brownsville, community garden, Jerry Summers, Maggie Joyner, Phoenix Community Garden, urban garden.