A New Leaf

A New Leaf

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Learn more about Boston Natural Areas Network.

Genevieve Rajewski covers animal issues, food, and agriculture for publications such as
The Boston Globe and Edible Boston. Read more at genevieverajewski.com.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 Annual Report issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

By Genevieve Rajewski

Urban green thumbs and open space aficionados celebrate a new merger to protect community gardens in the South End and Lower Roxbury.

At the Berkeley Street Community Garden in Boston’s South End, Rebecca Laws mops her dewy brow as she weeds. She lives six blocks away, and it’s her first year gardening at Berkeley Street. “I don’t have much experience, but everything is doing very well,” says Laws. “I’m growing tomatoes, spinach, kale, potatoes, peppers, and zucchini. It’s very exciting.”

On the opposite end of the garden – and spectrum – is Chant Lee. The petite, elderly Chinese-American woman has gardened at Berkeley Street for 20 years. She too grows her own vegetables, including Chinese beans, yams and bitter melons, which twine along a “roof” of trellising. “I eat everything in there,” says Lee, gesturing at her plot, which spills greenery from all sides.

As one of Boston’s largest community gardens, the Berkeley Garden has drawn residents from throughout the South End to enjoy its leafy goodness for decades. It’s more than a source of food – it’s an oasis of open space in one of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods. It’s no wonder that Trustees affiliate Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN) came forward when the South End/Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust needed help to ensure a future for this and 15 other gardens.

“The Land Trust properties represent nearly all the community gardens in the South End and Lower Roxbury,” explains Valerie Burns, president of BNAN, the city’s leading advocate and caretaker of urban open space. “They are where the neighborhoods not only grow a lot of their food but also where they get a good portion of their green space.”

The South End’s and Lower Roxbury’s community gardens have a long history in Boston, where they’ve played a significant role in sowing community activism in addition to crops. Most trace their roots to the 1960s federal land-redevelopment program known as “Urban Renewal.” As part of this effort to encourage new growth in major cities, many buildings were razed across the country. However, the funding developers needed to build on those urban properties didn’t come as quickly as planned, and cities like Boston were left with an overwhelming number of vacant lots – especially in lower income neighborhoods.

“By the 1970s, South End and Lower Roxbury residents got tired of looking at weedy, vacant lots and started gardening on them,” says Betsy Johnson, former president of the Land Trust board. “A number of these folks were people from other cultural backgrounds, whether it was China or the South, who couldn’t find the types of food they were used to eating and wanted to grow it.”

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