Sacramento Street Community Garden has been a lively and important feature of the neighborhood since 1975. Many gardeners and plant lovers, young and old, have found friends and refuge from city bustle along with a place to pursue a variety of gardening endeavors.
The garden is located in the Baldwin neighborhood between Harvard Square and Porter Square in close proximity to the Agassiz Baldwin Community, Maud Morgan Arts, the Baldwin School, and Sacramento Field.
On the north side of the garden is Sacramento Field. In the 1850s a dye and bleaching company used a portion of this once-swampy land to build a reservoir to take advantage of the springs, and pumped water to its operation on Somerville Avenue. The company closed during the Great Depression and the reservoir was eventually filled in. Harvard bought the site intending to build student housing. This plan was thwarted by neighborhood protests and in 1974 Harvard leased the field to the YMCA, so it was known as the “Y Field” until it became a City property in 1980. South of the field at 21 Sacramento Street was a large old house that was also owned and demolished by Harvard. The City took ownership of the site and in 1975 the community garden was established by the Agassiz Neighborhood Council, an entity of the Cambridge Community Schools Program. After about ten years the oversight of the garden changed to joint management by the gardeners and the Conservation Commission.
A renovation of Sacramento Field was undertaken in 2017; while very difficult for the garden members to accept because part of the garden was taken over, it enabled improved access to the field for the public and the Baldwin School. The garden lost a corridor of land along the high-sun east border. In compensation, the City shifted the garden’s back fence to add land, and replaced the garden’s dilapidated fencing on three sides.
In form the garden is a grid divided four paths by five paths; most plots are ground level and 10’ X 10.’ There are 66 beds, plus narrow ad hoc raised beds next to the east fence, and five raised planters for seniors. Other versions of raised beds have been devised within plots. They are of different heights and shapes, and made of wood, recycled containers, and grow bags. The garden paths are grassy dirt paths monitored by a committee. A sign provides a brief history and instructions on how to apply for a plot. A variety of implements are stored in a walk-in shed, along with sign-up sheets for tasks. Composting in plastic bins is located along the shady west fence and is carefully managed by Helen Snively. Next to the compost is a low storage shed. There are four benches. Trash and garden debris barrels are located next to the double gate.
What Is Grown
Common garden vegetables, herbs, and annual flowers are always present; trends and new favorites emerge over time, such as arugula, kale, and cherry tomatoes. Tracking just the profusion of tomatoes that have become available over the years, starting from mainly beefsteak slicers and plum tomatoes to the current range of heirlooms, new sizes, colors, and types from patio to vines, would be a book in itself. The scope of what people grow has become ever wider to include perennials blooming throughout the season; roses; raspberries; currants; strawberries; wildflowers; rhubarb; and one gooseberry. Seeds shared by Sheila Hoffman create a poppy show every year. One project of the pandemic summer was a homemade self-watering system in one plot.
Styles range from single crop—the ever-bearing yellow raspberry plot and the sun gold cherry tomato plot; mini landscapes with rocks, paths, and dwarf evergreens; transplanted family heirloom perennials; and a native plant collection. Artistic elements include metal sculpture, mosaics, bottles, and stonework. Members voted to not allow birdbaths due to West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis. Garden etiquette rules ask for strict maintenance of rose and raspberry canes. Horseradish, Jerusalem artichoke, and bamboo plants are not welcome.
Across the front of the garden, inside the fence, is a lovely mixed border with a variety of perennials, annuals, roses, azaleas, hibiscus, pieris, forsythia, and spring bulbs. Two climbing hydrangeas frame the front gate. The effect of the border, gate, and vine-covered arbor is a charming view from the street that contrasts with the no-two-alike individualism within the main garden.
Gardeners have come from all over Cambridge but most are from the Baldwin neighborhood. There is somewhat more diversity as the neighborhood has gotten more diverse. The coordinator said that recently there has been an uptick in families with young children interested in learning about where food comes from. Due to the proximity of Lesley and Harvard, there have always been university academics and administrators in the mix of engineers, teachers, social workers, and artists, some with histories of community activism going back to the 60’s and 70’s. A few have been members of the garden since the beginning. When the coordinator noticed that many long-term gardeners were aging and had had to leave the garden due to back and knee issues, she proposed that the City provide additional raised plots. Five raised and somewhat smaller plots are now in place next to the tool shed and another is in the right front section of the garden near an existing American Disabilities Act-compliant raised bed.
The ABC After School Program and summer Outback Program have shared a children’s plot at the community garden since 2010. It was originally in the front next to the double gate and was moved to a back corner for more space.
The earliest concept for the garden borrowed from the wartime Victory Gardens encouraging people to grow their own food. The plots would be rototilled annually and a lottery would determine who got a plot each year. But after the first few years, it was clear that what gardeners were looking for now was more flexible use and longer time frames.
A two-stage lottery was devised. In the first stage, existing members can vie for vacated, more desirable plots, then, in waitlist order, new gardeners can pick from the available plots. This practice is grandfathered for now. There is a “Use It or Lose It” committee, but an automatic turnover is not observed; gardeners in good standing can remain in the garden.
The annual meeting is held across the street at the ABC Center in March to catch up, introduce people, review garden rules, go over last year’s business and upcoming plans, and conduct the plot lottery. Turnover has been around ten plots per year. Dues of $15 go to the treasurer who manages the garden’s bank account; this fee is not mandatory.
Since the earliest days the coordinators have maintained an archive that is passed on. Drawing from the archives, current coordinator Anne Marie Reardon created a history album for the 40th anniversary party that was posted to the garden’s Facebook page.
For a new gardener, becoming part of this garden community with its deep history, well-established culture, and stimulating range of horticultural endeavors, can prove both challenging and beneficial.
Like all Cambridge community gardens, the Sacramento Street Community Gardens is a vulnerable and valued public space where people express themselves, experiment, and take chances. Looking ahead, a gradual need to conform to more City requirements may be disruptive of this culture for some gardeners. Loyalty and commitment have been a hallmark. Future gardeners may be less inclined to sustain this model of complex organization and connection.
Story contributed by the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club. This story was originally published in "Cambridge Community Gardens Today, 2020/2021."