McMath Park Community Garden

Description

McMath Park Community Garden is set well back from the street, and further hidden by a tall hedge that acts as a barrier between a shady little park with benches and the long north side of the garden. There is an element of real surprise when one comes through the garden’s only gate in the northwest corner to find a spacious garden, with 30 energetically and imaginatively gardened plots. It is a very urban version of a secret garden.

Location

The garden is tucked away in the back corner of McMath Park, located on Pemberton Street in residential North Cambridge between Haskell and Fairfield streets. Across Pemberton Street is Rindge Field, a large sports field adjacent to the Peabody School, and a tot lot along Haskell Street. The MBTA commuter rail parallels the south side.

History

Community gardens have tended to be initiated because of the interest and effort of neighborhood residents. In the case of McMath Community Garden, it was established by the Conservation Commission, in 1996, with input from the Community Development Department. At that time, the City of Cambridge was tightening up its regulations across the board because of liability concerns and fiscal constraints. The McMath garden bears the hallmarks of the more articulated 1996 Conservation Commission guidelines. These included a requirement for three garden coordinators, a raised accessible bed, plots set aside for communal gardening, and a limit of one plot per family residing in Cambridge, with the plots and borders kept neat, free of material that could attract rodents, and cleaned up for the winter. All these guidelines are still in effect, with the exception that there are now two coordinators instead of three.

Location

The garden is tucked away in the back corner of McMath Park, located on Pemberton Street in residential North Cambridge between Haskell and Fairfield streets. Across Pemberton Street is Rindge Field, a large sports field adjacent to the Peabody School, and a tot lot along Haskell Street. The MBTA commuter rail parallels the south side.

Garden Description

The two long sides of the garden are approximately 100’ but are not parallel; the space becomes narrower toward the west end. There is a 35’ X 20’ notch in the corner next to the tennis practice wall area for access to the garden gate. The gate opens to a wide entrance area where the tool shed and yard waste bins are kept. The garden is to the left and can be seen once you are through the gate and by the shed. Three sides of the garden is chain link fencing; there is a tall wooden fence at the east end partially blocking the neighboring houses. Tall trees in the backyards shade that part of the garden. The entrance area and paths are paved with asphalt; segments of paths vary from 2 to 4 feet wide. The path layout and irregular shape of the garden are not conducive to a grid plot plan so divisions have been improvised and plots vary in size. There are three large wheels with hoses. There are 30 individual plots plus an accessible bed.

The overall impression is positive. This is a garden with unusual vegetables, a variety of flowers, paths, and planters, and creative structures to shelter and support plants.

What Is Grown

By mid-May the garden is in full swing, with most of the plots already showing the abundance to come. Vegetables include onions, collard greens, beets, beans, garlic, kohlrabi, peppers of all kinds, eggplant, squash, lettuces, and tomatoes; there are strawberries and raspberry bushes; and herbs such as rosemary, dill, parsley, basil, and tarragon. Mint has proliferated. Flowers are mixed with the vegetables in most of the plots. These include tulips, poppies, peonies, iris, lupines, perennial sunflowers, phlox, fall anemone, and Shasta daisies. Clumps of milkweed are on offer for butterflies.

The communal bed is along the shady east boundary. Lily-of- the-valley, ginger, and Solomon seal are in the shadiest section. Herbs are where there is more light—oregano, mint, thyme, and chives. There is a large bleeding heart, spring bulbs, and some labeled wildflowers.

Gardeners

Helen Palmer, one of the coordinators, is English; her father planted vegetables during WWII, but her mother loved flowers. Helen lived in London, but was able to garden in a neighbor’s garden and that got her started. When Helen and her husband moved to Cambridge, she became a member of the original Broadway & Boardman Community Garden. When that garden became the Squirrel Brand Community Garden, Helen felt those plots should go to the tenants who had moved into the Old Squirrel Brand factory building. After gardening at the Whittemore Avenue community garden in North Cambridge (now demolished), she moved to the McMath garden.

Barbara Thomas, chair of the Use It or Lose It Committee, is a wonderful source of enthusiasm and knowledge. Barbara said there are currently two families—Italian and Chinese—who bring their children and are teaching them how to garden. There are a few Pakistani and Indian gardeners. Barbara’s parents are originally from Guyana, in South America near the equator. Barbara grew up in the Bronx, where her family grew many vegetables and flowers, mostly from seeds, in containers on their back porch. Barbara continues this tradition of growing her vegetables from seeds, and focuses on unusual ones like purple string bean, and Paul Roberson tomatoes that she can’t easily get at the grocery store.

Management

The garden functions reliably in part because it has a comprehensive handbook that is updated annually, with important dates (when to start planting, when to clean up, mandatory spring and fall work days, the fall potluck); contact information for the committees; and a “use it or lose it” system. Many of the gardeners have been members for a long time; however, turnover does occur and plots do become available. Annual dues are $20. The dues fund communal tools and new hoses as necessary. Gardeners were able to acquire a tool shed to store the shared tools and garden supplies.

Summary

Since COVID-19, rats have seemed more numerous. In response, gardeners are being asked to be diligent about keeping ripe vegetables off the ground—they are expected to pick once a week. No composting is done on site and mulches are discouraged. About half the plots are fenced to fend off rabbits, and the garden has added chicken wire to the perimeter chain link fencing.

There is a neighborly ethic to the McMath Park Community Garden, eloquently stated in the handbook: “The overall beauty and health of the garden is dependent on the investment of all members of the community in their plot and the garden.” Members of McMath are expected to be exactly that—members of a community, involved not just in the care and tending of their own plots, but in the wellbeing of the garden, and respectful of their neighbors.

Story contributed by the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club. This story was originally published in "Cambridge Community Gardens Today, 2020/2021."

Photos Show

McMath Park gardener

McMath Park gardener

Gardener crouches in a plot. [View Additional File Details]

McMath Park Community Garden overhead view

McMath Park Community Garden overhead view

Overhead view of the garden behind a hedge. [View Additional File Details]

McMath Park mulch

McMath Park mulch

Facing southeast [View Additional File Details]

mcmath straw.jpg
mcmath hose.jpg
mcmath building.jpg

Garden Website

www.cambridgema.gov/Services/communitygardens

Cite this Page

“McMath Park Community Garden,” Community of Gardens, accessed February 21, 2024, https:/​/​communityofgardens.​si.​edu/​items/​show/​12450.​
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