Season ‘opener’ for garden crew

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent 


If you grow it, they will come.

That’s how the managers of the Kearny Community Garden see it as they plant the seeds for the garden’s second season in Riverbank Park on the river side of Passaic Ave., just north of Skinner Bros. Automotive.

And it seems to be true, judging from the turnout at the official opening of the season May 10, as many of the approximately 50 individuals, families and/or community groups (like the Cub Scouts) who registered as urban “farmers” turned out to plant their “crops.”

Last year, a group of about 10 volunteers, led by residents David and Jenny Mach and Erin Donnelly, got the garden going – with the town’s blessing to use the park – and were joined by another 10 folks down the road but, since then, interest has grown by leaps and bounds.

For $20, a participant – individual/ family/group – gets the use of up to five straw bales in which to plant their organic vegetables and/or flowers. Bales are favored because they attract fewer critters, are cleaner than raised soil beds and easier to tend, the organizers say.

A $2,000 Sustainable Jersey Capacity-Building grant awarded the garden by PSE&G Foundation earlier this year has helped pay for some of the costs associated with maintaining the site.

On May 10, gardeners – some wearing Kearny Community Garden sweatshirts sold as part of a February fundraiser that netted $220 to buy items like soil, fertilizer, tools, mats – were using spades, trowels or even pliers to create openings in the bales in which to insert their baby plantings.

“The idea is to dig a hole as deep as you can,” said David Mach, to better protect the planting and ensure it’s getting sufficient nutrients.

To enhance the growing process, Mach recommends the application of organic fertilizer – in the form of chicken manure – and water (in prescribed amounts) to the bales over a 10-day period. After five days of letting it sit, the bales are ready for planting.

For those who want to try it out in their home garden, the process, Mach said, is detailed in Joel Karsten’s book, “Straw Bale Gardens,” copies of which the Kearny Community Garden happens to have available for sale for $20 each. The Kearny Public Library currently has two copies as well..

In composted form, “chicken manure adds organic matter and increases the water holding capacity and beneficial biota in soil {and] provides nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to your plants,” says the Seattle Tilth Association, a nonprofit organic gardening and urban ecology group.

Mach says gardeners use hose connections installed at the site by the Kearny Public Works personnel to shoot high-pressure jets of water into the bales to help decompose the manure and “heat up” the mix for optimum growth.

A crew of volunteers began preparing the bales for planting on April 26, providing adequate lead time before the participants were invited for the season “opener.”

“Fertilizing the bales is the most labor intensive process of the whole growing season,” Mach said. “The more people we can teach to do it, the more we can expand the garden in the future.”

Several of the planters randomly interviewed by The Observer on May 10 seemed to know a lot about what they were doing.

Ed Bixler, back from last season, was busy planting 3-inch seed potatoes. Each one, he said, should produce 15 regular size potatoes. “It grows with a leafy attachment and you wait two weeks after the greenery appears and then you dig ‘em up,” he explained.

Bixler, a longtime realtor active in many community efforts, and his wife Peg are also planting cucumbers, Bush beans, tomatoes, onions, broccoli and beets, along with marigolds and zinnias. “We’re trying to get everything in five bales,” he said. “God’s little acre.”

Another returnee, Newark teacher Gloria Bermeo-Ortiz, was engaged in the process of fitting her grape tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic inside the bales while planting marigolds on the front side of the bales. “I’m here because I want to eat organic stuff and get to know more Kearny residents,” she said.

Bermeo-Ortiz was introduced to gardening in her native Ecuador. “It was like a second income in our house,” she said. “We planted a lot of vegetables and I learned that drinking vegetable juice was a healthy habit. I wish I could do this all year long. I hope I can bring my students here on field trips so they can see where their food comes from.”

Diane Szymanski, a private purchasing agent, is a firsttime entry to the Passaic Ave. cultivation site. “I saw the garden last year when I passed by and I decided to sign up this year,” she said. “I don’t have a yard but I’ve gardened before so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity.” She’s planting tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli and pumpkins.

A dedicated vegan, Christopher Vazquez has been a practicing home gardener for a year, using it as a pleasurable diversion from the rigors of studying to become a CPA. Along with tomatoes, he said he’s “experimenting with Aji Amarrillo, a popular spicy Peruvian pepper,” which, he said, mixes well with Papa a la Huancaina, a Peruvian salad of boiled potatoes with spicy yellow sauce.

“I’m using marigolds as a deterrent against aphids, insects that eat plant cellulose,” Vazquez said.

Perhaps at some point, he said, the Kearny garden can begin “growing fruit orchards. Everyone likes fruit.”

Among this season’s newcomers was Councilwoman Susan McCurrie, partnering with sign maker Lynn Oelz and Tom Eckel with ambitious plans to plant a panoply of produce, including yellow and red onions, beets, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, beefsteak tomatoes, plus hot and sweet red and orange peppers.

“I just want to learn to grow my own vegetables,” McCurrie said, “so I can have a better conversation with the farmers who bring their stuff to our Farmers’ Market.”

Mayor Alberto Santos, a garden visitor, begged off participating but congratulated the active planters surrounding him. “It’s always exciting to see the potential of this site realized. There’s going to be a terrific variety of plantings and I look forward to seeing a successful harvest in the fall.”

Santos added: “This is a great community endeavor that brings our residents together.”

No question about it, echoed garden co-founder Erin Donnelly. “We want our garden to be a bridge for all the different groups in our community. Our current members are all ages and races. Our youngest is 3 and our oldest is 93. When you come, you may hear English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or Hindi. Regardless of the language we speak, we can all get together around food. Everyone and anyone is welcome,” she said.

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