By Ron Leir
It’s clearly been a labor of love for the cultivators of the Kearny Community Garden in Riverbank Park along Passaic Ave.
As its first season winds down, with the culmination of the fall harvest, organizers Jenny and David Mach are pronouncing the new venture a big success, as evidenced by the bounty of produce that Mother Nature has yielded.
So much, in fact, that the gardeners are happy to share the surplus with friendly neighbors like Skinner Brothers Automotive or dog walkers venturing in for a look.
“We’ve had so many tomatoes, we couldn’t give them away fast enough,” said Jenny, a teacher by day and grower largely on weekends. “We’ve been constantly giving stuff away.”
The volunteer gardeners used some 200 straw bales (placed over a base of topsoil and peat moss) as planting beds – irrigated by rows of soaker hose – to grow strawberries, watermelon, pumpkins, tomatoes (purple, plum, oxheart, grape, cherry and beefsteak), mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, cilantro, fennel, beans (string, bush, lima and Indian), beets, turban squash, eggplant (white and purple), pepper (hot and sweet), lettuce, carrots, broccoli, spinach, celery, parsley and potatoes.
When the enterprise was launched in mid-May, no one knew how things would turn out. “It was a giant experiment to see what would grow,” said Jenny.
Virtually everything planted did, in fact, sprout, although some hard lessons were learned in the process. “Fruits were a big bonus,” she said.
“With some of our heavier tomatoes, we now know they have to be supported by posts because, otherwise, their weight will cause them to fall,” said David.
Another, more unsavory discovery, was that, “groundhogs ate a whole row of gourmet lettuce,” Jenny said. “They just mowed it down, along with broccoli and spinach, the leaves on sweet potatoes and cucumbers – young stuff, anything of the newer growth.”
“I was surprised to see that they climbed some trees and jumped down onto the bales,” Jenny noted.
One strategy that seemed to prevent the creatures’ incursions was protecting some of the plantings with chicken wire, the Machs said. That mini-fencing will definitely be used next season, they said.
Other forms of wildlife that popped up as surprise visitors, but not disruptive ones, included possums, rabbits, raccoons, turkey buzzards and snapping turtles. “We even caught a couple of field mice,” said David.
Aside from the 10 or so “regulars” who formed the core group that tended the garden, the Machs credited Mayor Alberto Santos and members of the Town Council for “being super supportive of our ‘green’ initiative” by making the land and water supply available.
The Machs also gave kudos to employees of the town’s Department of Public Works for their labor on the project. “They took away the trash, made our compost bins, installed the water irrigation system, provided and spread the wood chips [between the rows of bales as a sort of carpet for more efficient maneuvering by gardeners] and, in general, maintained the grounds impeccably,” David said.
And some residents who happened to wander through the garden and were suitably impressed even gave cash donations for the cause, Jenny said.
One core group member, Sophia Rahman, planted Indian beans, long squash and pumpkins – replicating some of the produce she grows in her home garden. She said the group “enjoyed working together” for the same common goal: getting nourishing food the old-fashioned way – by growing it.
Peg and Ed Bixler, a couple who’ve also been with the project from the get-go, planted a batch of potatoes and cucumbers, using the latter to make 21 pints of bread-and-butter pickles.
The Machs said the core group will be meeting during the winter to plan for next season’s garden enterprise. They hope that the garden can expand to some extent, she said.
“We’re expecting a huge sign-up for next year,” Jenny said. “We’re thinking of allowing people to sign up for up to five straw bales [for planting] and up to 10 per family.”
For updates on those plans, folks are invited to visit the garden website at kearnycommunitygarden@ gmail.com or check out pictures and information about the garden at facebook.com/kearnycommunitygarden.