by Mike Mennonno, Fenway Garden Society President
As we wend our way into summer, and the frenetic pace of the spring slows a bit, it’s a good time to reflect on where we’re at as a community and a garden.
The Fenway Victory Gardens have always had some unique challenges as a community, and the board over which I have presided, this year and last, has put an emphasis on assessing and addressing those challenges. We’ve developed and implemented a strategy for building community that has embraced community outreach, partnerships, practical modes of knowledge-sharing and an emphasis on life-long learning, fostering an environment conducive to bringing the wider community in and the gardening community out. We’ve done this not only by focusing on communication (our facebook community alone has quadrupled in the past year), but by changing in very significant ways how we talk about who we are, invite people in, and work together as a community.
Members and friends put up a fence in the Teaching Garden at a Community Participation Day.
We have attempted to shine a light on our mission of stewardship, not only of the seven acres entrusted to us by the City of Boston, but of the extraordinary community that tends them, and the legacy of those who fought to make sure this resource remained available to all of us. Through programming and partnerships with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Massachusetts Historical Society, WBUR, the City of Boston, the Boston Society of Architects and many others, we have, in this, our 70th year, highlighted our history as a vital community resource and made a clear commitment to another 70 years of growth.
Preparing for a walking tour after an exhibition of the FGS archives at the Mass. Historical Society.
Over the last two season we have brought in over a hundred new members, representing a third of our present membership, and a shift toward a more positive, progressive, and proactive approach to growing our community. With the move from online applications to onsite applicant information sessions, prospective FGS members are encouraged to meet the board and current members, work side-by-side on park stewardship, learn and grow together from the get-go. Veteran members have played a big role in mentoring newbies. This organic knowledge-sharing from one gardener to another is what our community is about, and creating opportunities and cultivating an environment in which it takes place is one of the most important duties of the board, and one this board has embraced.
Volunteers assemble wheelbarrows at a Community Participation Day.
An emphasis on community and creating opportunities for knowledge-sharing has also had a noticeable impact on the tone of discourse in the gardens. Members working together on meaningful projects at Community Participation Days and coming together for events and programming develop a greater sense of mutual respect. Events become networking opportunities, and often unexpected connections are made and friendships forged.
When compliance issues come up, neighbors help neighbors address them. From the beginning new members are educated about our guidelines and regulations and the reasons they exist: to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all who utilize the park. This board has made it a point to pursue a person-to-person approach to beautification and safety in the gardens.
Our emphasis on stewardship has bought new members into an environment where they are supported and valued, have the resources of our entire community, are empowered with our collective knowledge, and can count on our commitment to learn and grow together.
Aside from applicant information days and orientation, we have instituted programming during our six Community Participation Days aimed at active knowledge-sharing on everything from gate-construction to eradication of invasives and proper community composting. These events have been remarkably well-attended and the good energy is palpable. The difference that a little education can do can be seen in our exceptionally well-tended compost this year.
Another regular addition to our work roster is a barn-building approach to fence and gate repair. Members who participate in Community Participation Days can get much needed repairs added to the day’s work roster. The community comes together to contribute labor and surplus materials for repairs. Through feedback it’s clear that members and friends who have participated in these projects have had an overwhelmingly positive experience, and feel that the work they’ve done has had a real and meaningful impact on a member of their community. Making sure that volunteerism is meaningful is another essential part of our mission, and this board has put its heart and soul into that goal.
Our capital projects have not been as grand as in past years, but they have been significant in building on the hard work of previous boards, who left us with new perimeter fencing, a new park-wide irrigation system, and a systematic approach to community composting. Our focus has been on helping members improve their fences and gates while remaining in compliance, and educating our members at Community Participation Days on how to compost properly and maintain and repair our irrigation system.
We have also begun the rehabilitation of the central meadow as a spot for safe leisure and recreation. Removal of an unsightly rubbish barrel surrounded by dangerous debris was a first step. We also lobbied and won three times the rubbish barrels we had in prior years from Parks. This has gone a long way toward keeping our common spaces cleaner. Scheduling regular programming and events for the Meadow, including monthly meet-ups with lawn games, is an exercise in “modeling” for our community what types of activities are appropriate for this public space.
And we have added amenities like the Teaching Garden and Apiary that I hope will continue to evolve as community resources.
Dean from Golden Rule Honey, our partners in the Teaching Apiary, introduces members and friends to “the girls”.
These projects, programs and events are all the result of effective partnerships. The Apiary is a great example of how the board is pursuing partnerships that embrace our educational mission, enhance the member experience, and expand outreach.
Last year when the board voted unanimously to pursue hives onsite there were several stipulations, including safety first, professional beekeepers only, and a focus on education. We wanted something more than merely more bees, we wanted members and visitors to the park to become educated about bees, and Golden Rule Honey was a good fit for this purpose, with their experience in educational programming. Members and visitors have had frequent opportunities, including as part of Community Participation Day programming, to “meet the girls”, learn about beekeeping, and discover what gardeners right here in Boston can do about the crisis of colony collapse.
As an educator myself who has seen firsthand over a twenty-year career in adult education the power of hands-on life-long learning to impact personal growth, the emphasis on our educational mission was a no-brainer. And the ongoing success of our programming this year, which has ranged from big events like the Summer in the City Kick-Off and Common Boston Common Build, to historical programs at the Mass. Historical Society and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, to walking tours and workshops with Golden Rule Honey and Green City Growers, has been proof positive of interest and enthusiasm in all aspects of urban gardening.
Not only do these great programs enhance the member experience, they also raise the profile of the gardens, getting the word out to visitors and prospective members and friends alike that our park is safe, clean and well-run by a highly committed volunteer organization. This in turn brings the public in in ways that respect our mission of stewardship — as partners working together in this great endeavor. Long-term, this means a safer park for all, as the culture shifts to one of respect for the space and the mission of all those who tend and utilize it.
Events like Summer in the City Kick-Off and The Common Boston Common Build combine learning and fun for the whole community.
In the coming months I’ll be talking more about where we are, what I see as our big challenges and opportunities, and how we can continue to grow forward together. For now, though, I’m going to go water my tomatoes. See you in the Gardens!