Corcoran Park Community Garden is well sited on a slight plateau at the northwest corner of Corcoran Park. With its slightly elevated position, and neat chain link fencing, the garden seems to crown the green expanse of the park stretching out below it. The Corcoran Park Community Garden is a quintessential city garden, in a quintessential neighborhood park. Corcoran Park (Raymond Street Park) is one of the few parks designed with a community garden. In keeping with its more public aspect it is less a neighborhood garden than most.
Corcoran Park runs between Walden Street (north) and Upland Road (south) with Raymond Street forming its east border and a stiff pitch down to a small group of houses set back from Newell Street to the west.
The City constructed the 2.7-acre park in 1914-1915. In 1931, the City Council named the park the Timothy F. Corcoran Field in memory of a World War I veteran born and raised in the neighborhood. Apart from the ball field, the city renovated the park completely in 1987, replacing play equipment and benches, resurfacing the basketball court and pathways, and planting additional trees. The City recently turned the baseball field into a soccer field.
The Corcoran Park Community Garden was established in the early 1980s. The community garden was designed from the start to be part of the park, which over the years has evolved into a multi-use neighborhood treasure. There is an active Friends of Raymond Park volunteer steering committee that organizes summer movie nights, holiday events, and block parties. There is a large open space used for soccer games and early morning gatherings of dogs and their owners. The basketball court, playground, and tot lot are in constant use, with a lovely landscaped sitting area in the south/east corner, a gift to the neighborhood by Louise Weed in memory of her parents.
The founding coordinator of the garden was Lorna Gilmore, a member of the Cambridge Conservation Commission and a Harvard-educated Ph.D research scientist at MGH. She and her husband Marvin Gilmore were an interracial couple well known throughout Cambridge for their activism and community spirit. Lorna passed away in 2007 but according to her husband Marvin (still alive and well at 96), the garden was her life. She would walk over from Appleton Street every day, taking her little toy poodle with her.
Glenn Heinmiller is a long-time gardener (1988) who remembers Lorna well. It was Lorna who persuaded the City to replace the original thin wood slat snow fence with a sturdier short chain link fence. Eventually part of this fence had to be replaced with a higher one to protect the plots from flying baseballs—now soccer balls—that routinely sailed into their midst.
The double rows of plots are divided by a middle path with a path running on each side of the long north/south borders. The entrance gate divides the chain fence to the west; large bushes block the neighboring houses lying below. The retaining wall that holds up the west bank is said to be a remnant from one of the original clay pits scattered throughout the area in the 1850s. To the left of the gate the path widens—room for two benches and four compost bins under the large old trees along the Walden Street side. The garden originally had 28 plots but since the front two plots were determined too shady to garden, the City allowed the compost bins instead. Dick and Marge Pratt have been gardeners since 1986; Dick helped install the current compost bins, designed and built by a former gardener. Glenn currently maintains the compost system. Glenn’s mother was an expert vegetable gardener and he grew up understanding compost—his abundant, healthy tomatoes are the envy of all.
Glenn also organized the elaborate system that gives each aisle of garden plots easy access to a hose. Glenn explained the history of the water supply: originally the City supplied three 55-gallon drums where the compost bins are now. In exchange for free city water, one of the neighbors in a house below the garden allowed the gardeners to hook up a hose to his outside faucet, drag the hose up the high bank, snake it through the fence, and fill the drums for the gardeners to use. Gardeners used 2-gallon milk containers with the tops cut off to water their individual plots—quite a production. Eventually the City did supply one water faucet by the middle of the long path running along the Walden Street side.
What Is Grown
The garden itself is a large one, 40 feet wide by 64 feet long, with 26 roughly equal sized plots of 10 feet by 12 feet, laid out symmetrically in two long double rows. Its orderly rectangles are planted by competent gardeners who fill their plots with tomatoes, lettuces, peppers, squash, and herbs mixed with peonies, roses, and sturdy brightly colored annuals—zinnias, dahlias, marigolds, and cosmos. Iris, tulips, and narcissi bloom in the spring.
In addition to Glenn, Anastacia Salcedo, the current garden coordinator, and two long-term gardeners, Elizabeth Wylde and Anna Nathanson, talked about their plots and interests. Anastacia calls herself the basil lady and has even consulted with Rutgers University on mildew resistant varieties! Elizabeth has been gardening here since 1983; she was one of the original gardeners. Elizabeth concentrates on vegetable varieties she can’t get in the supermarket—sugar snap peas (which her husband loves), certain kinds of leafy lettuces, and green and yellow bush beans. She grows almost everything from seed—she has grow lights at home where she starts her plants. Anna Nathanson joined the garden in 1998. Anna uses her plot to plant asparagus and early spring vegetables. Anna grew up in Italy. Her father was a great gardener; Anna helped water her family’s large garden. Anna still remembers the plums—nothing has ever tasted so sweet.
Three years ago, Anastacia Salcedo volunteered to set up and maintain a Google Group of current gardeners, to reach out every spring to see who was planning to continue gardening, and to keep Conservation Commission director Jennifer Letourneau apprised of any openings. In spring 2021, passersby showed an increased post-COVID interest in obtaining a plot. Anastacia valiantly took on the task, combining her informal waiting lists with Jennifer Letourneau’s records. Current gardeners were asked for a firm commitment by mid-June if they expected to continue gardening. This resulted in a number of freed up plots, and happy new gardeners from off the waiting list.
Increasing shade from growing trees is a chronic problem for the garden. The gardeners hope the City will do some overdue tree pruning soon. Some Corcoran gardeners would like to go back to a shared spring clean-up day, and to expecting gardeners to weed the paths bordering their plots. For all its mild anarchy, the Corcoran Park Community Garden runs well—the gardeners are committed and skilled, growing primarily vegetables with a display of flowers in almost all the plots. People are friendly and get to know the neighbors of their plots. There is a good range of ages, with more young people signing up, and parents often bringing their children.
Story contributed by the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club. This story was originally published in "Cambridge Community Gardens Today, 2020/2021."