It’s official: Gardening is necessary. It is considered part and parcel of agriculture, an activity both the federal and state governments deem essential in this time of mandated physical distancing.

Community gardens are also essential. They allow people without enough property at their homes – or at least enough suitably sunny and fertile property – to grow vegetables and/or flowers on land they share with other community members. As a side benefit, community gardeners get sunshine, outdoor exercise and a welcome escape from the indoor spaces we are all stuck in these days.

But whether community gardens will be allowed to operate this year, given the spread of the coronavirus, will be up to individual municipalities.

“We have had discussions regarding community gardens and the state role,” Ann Gibbs, director of the state Division of Plant and Animal Health, said earlier this month, “and we have determined that it really is a municipal decision. The attitude is that if physical distancing can be accomplished, it would be a worthwhile activity.”

Not all towns have yet made decisions on the subject. Four that plan to operate their community gardens, at least for now, are Portland, Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth and Westbrook. Yarmouth has held virtual meetings to discuss the matter, but hasn’t yet decided it. Meanwhile, garden organizers are exploring the logistics of opening these public gardens safely — how to deal with shared tools, tasks and schedules? As of this writing, I know of no community garden that has shut down its gardens for the season.

In past years, community gardeners have shared tools and chores. This year, the coronavirus means that many standard operating procedures must change for gardens such as this one, the North Street Community Garden in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

But as with just about everything else in our daily lives this spring, the ground rules for community gardening have, by necessity, changed.

Cultivating Community, which has 400 plots at 11 garden sites in Portland, will keep its gardens off-limits until the city water is turned on and supplies are in place for hand-washing and sanitation, according to Rowen Gorman, community agriculture program coordinator. “At that time, the gardens will be open with new guidelines in place that include social distancing,” she said.

The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust got permission in early April to open its Tom Settlemire Community Garden. “Because of all the food we grow for Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, along with the space we provide to so many community members to grow their own food, we truly believe this program is particularly essential this year,” Lee Cataldo, program director for the Land Trust, said. “So many families are struggling to access the food they need, and that’s likely to only get worse over the next few months.”

Like Portland, the land trust is delaying the start of gardening until the water is turned on, to make sanitation easier.

Typically, community gardeners share tools. Not this season. The Settlemire garden, as well as gardens in Cape Elizabeth and Westbrook, will disallow that practice and have also put physical-distancing rules into place.

“We will certainly require gardeners to maintain proper social distances, according to the Maine CDC,” said Rachel Stamieszkin, coordinator of the Cape Elizabeth’s Gulf Crest gardens, “but we are seriously considering new rules to reduce the number of touch points at the garden as well as restricting the number of gardeners who can be at the garden at once.”

Tom Meyer, coordinator of the gardens at Maxwell’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, said his group contacted Dan Maxwell, who owns the field, as well as a nearby nursery school to make sure they were OK with the gardens being operated this year. Community gardeners will be instructed to use a trail at the opposite side of the gardens from the school, which is open as of this writing, and will need to bring their own tools. Chores that in past years were done together, such as putting up fences and running water lines, will be scheduled and completed by single families or others who share a household.

The community gardens at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm in Falmouth opened earlier this month, said Peter Baecher, director of property at the site, which has about 50 plots. Precautions are in place: The tool shed is locked up and disinfectant has been stocked at the water spigots, which sit at the entrance to the gardens. Baecher added that Audubon has posted signs reminding gardeners to abide by CDC guidelines on physical distancing.

Restaurants, bars, gyms, hair salons, state parks, beaches, schools and so many other things are shut down for the foreseeable future. But every community garden organizer I spoke with said that if the gardens were required to close, they would be missed a great deal. Not only do the participants enjoy gardening, but also many of these gardens provide food for the needy. Both of the Cape gardens donate produce to Judy’s Pantry. Three of the Gulf Crest plots are dedicated specifically to Harvest for the Hungry and Judy’s Pantry, Stamieszkin said. The Brunswick-Topsham garden donates a lot of vegetables to the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program.

If this column has inspired you to get a plot at a community garden, be aware that while the Brunswick-Topsham garden and those in Westbrook have some available slots, community gardens in Portland, Cape Elizabeth and at Gilsland Farm have waiting lists for 2020.

Still, it’s good news that, for now, despite the pandemic, it looks like some Mainers will be able to enjoy their community garden plots.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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