William G. Maher Community Garden can claim to be year-round and, on purpose or not, to be a source of food for wildlife as well as humans. Some of the wildlife is vexing and the humans inevitably have ups and downs, but the vibe is mainly friendly, mutually helpful, and sometimes culturally enlightening.
The garden opened in 2007 as an element of the Fresh Pond Reservation Master Plan, adopted by the City in 2000. The garden was part of the Northeast Sector project, the first and largest project of the master plan undertaken. The Maher Community Garden replaced the earlier Neville Community Garden located east of Neville Place (previously known as Neville Manor). The original Neville Community Garden transformed into the Butterfly Garden as part of the Northeast Sector project.
Neville Community Garden was a secluded but expansive informal space with ad hoc sized plots and minimal management. This garden was the earliest designated community garden in Cambridge (1974). The Neville Community gardeners included a diversity of immigrants, notably a contingent of Russians with miniature dachas. Kitchen staff grew tomatoes for Neville Manor. This practice was a remnant of larger scale institutional gardening undertaken by the Cambridge Home for the Aged and Infirm, predecessor to Neville Manor. Other uses of the garden included bathing by the homeless, and beekeeping. A few gardeners obtained plots in the relocated garden.
Maher Community Garden is in a section of the Fresh Pond Reservation named William G. Maher Park, and is near the Concord Avenue entrance to Neville Center and Neville Place. The same entrance also provides access to the youth soccer field and parking for the Fresh Pond Reservation facilities. Across Concord Avenue is a fast-growing residential development in the area known as the Quadrangle.
The garden form is linear. It is comprised of a center path between two single rows totaling 44 plots 10'x10' in size separated by timbers. Six are planters raised to 3 1/2 feet. Except for the raised beds, all the plots have been gradually fenced. There are three water sources, three gates, several benches, and a gated space for garden debris that must be disposed of in yard waste bags. A mixed blessing is the availability of a porta-potty next to the main entrance at the parking lot end, coincidentally installed seasonally by the Water Department for the nearby youth soccer field. A more attractive feature just outside the middle gate is an artful drinking fountain created for Maher Park by artist Laura Baring-Gould.
Water supply, facility maintenance, rodent control, and waste removal are services provided by the city's Water Department. Composting is not permitted and gardeners are asked to use only organic inputs. Typically, the organic inputs are commercial compost, but some compost is homemade and brought to the garden. Composted goat manure from Habitat in Belmont was used one summer. The mulch that is used is salt marsh hay, straw pine needles, and chopped up leaves.
What Is Grown
Something is growing in every season; in winter Sue's winter kale and lettuce are grown inside low tunnels; in spring, bulbs and wintered-over garlic are mixed with seedlings; in midsummer, Ahua's Japanese yard long climbing beans are magnificent; in summer and into fall, little groups of goldfinches can be seen feeding on Swiss chard while monarch and fritillary butterflies seek nectar on sunflowers and zinnia; foraging bumblebees visit marigolds and asters; and colorful tomatoes are abundant.
The top three vegetables are tomatoes, kale, and a variety of peppers. The cultural backgrounds of the gardeners influence many of the choices: Asian greens, such as bok choy, mustards, and perilla; a wide range of squash and melons, including bitter melon; and various types of eggplants.
The top flowers in the garden are annuals—zinnia, marigold, and nasturtium; cosmos and verbena are self-seeders. Perennials include various sunflowers—top butterfly magnets, tithonia, lilies, peonies, rues, and perennial sweet peas. Also present are native perennials such as fall aster, which is intended for native pollinators. Many of the flowers are important to the gardeners for cutting. Herbs include the usual herbs used as cooking ingredients, plus lavender, lemon verbena, comfrey and rue—grown by the oldest gardener, a native of Lithuania, who turned 100 in 2020.
All parts of Cambridge have been represented by the gardeners, but more now live in the new residential development nearby. There is an age range but most are middle-aged or seniors. Occasionally there is a family with young children or a grandparent/child combination. The wide variety in types of vegetables is due in part to Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, and Bangladeshi gardeners. Neville Place residents have special access to six raised beds, at least a few of which are used every year. Also, pre-COVID-19, Neville staff led groups on walk-throughs of the garden, calling out the names of plants and sparking memories of gardening. Hopefully these excursions can return.
"Master gardeners" and one former commercial grower have helped the people new to gardening. Sometimes plots are shared, which saves trips for people coming from more distant neighborhoods or are short on time. In one case two share two plots: "we fight the roots of the river birch on the Neville side and the shade of the viburnums on the other." Gardeners help each other with watering, and share seedlings, mulch, and knowledge. The annual turnover is 10-15%. A time limit has not been observed.
Operation of the garden has evolved. Conservation Commission director Jennifer Letourneau managed issues and plot turnover for the first few years. Eventually gardeners stepped up to be coordinators. Fresh Pond Reservation landscape supervisor Vincent Falcione deals with problems like pruning, water spigots, hoses, and broken gate latches. The garden coordinator keeps track of plots becoming available. Coordinators communicate information about rodent control, encourage proper disposal, announce water turn-on and -off dates, schedule cleanup days, and help solve complaints that often deal with shade. Some have organized social events, and others have shared photos and gardening tips. Sue Putnam, a hands-on type of coordinator, finally stopped the devastating groundhogs by repeatedly filling in their entrances with rocks. No committees, no fees.
Recruiting coordinators is one challenge; partnerships are encouraged to share the role. Gardeners, as reflected in their gardens, have individual interests and intentions, resources, time, cultural practices, and predilections. Tolerance is a communal aspiration.
Challenges and benefits of the garden also differ depending on attitudes towards the location itself and its multiple uses. For example, one challenge is the gardeners' frustration with, even lack of respect for, the plant and trees adjacent to the garden. Encroaching roots and shade are issues that could have been avoided during the design phase of the garden. On the other hand, invasive plants such as mint and goutweed have escaped from the garden into the adjacent native plant meadow. Wildlife, always looking for food, is a challenge, but seeing all the birds and butterflies is a pleasure for many.
Depending on the individual, the multiple uses of the land outside the garden can also be a challenge or a benefit. Most year-round traffic is from Neville Place and Neville Center visitors and staff. Concurrent with the gardening season are reservation walkers, runners, cyclists, and soccer players. Chance encounters can be fascinating or concerning. On and off pilfering has been a problem and plots (except the raised beds) have over time been fenced against theft and rabbits. However, many people walking by and occasionally through the garden, express appreciation and interest.
Story contributed by the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club. This story was originally published in "Cambridge Community Gardens Today, 2020/2021."