Riverside Press Park Community Garden is in transition from the traditional form of community gardening with individual plots assigned to individual gardeners to becoming a pilot program offering a communal form of gardening. This new program is an informal partnership between the nonprofit Green Cambridge and the City of Cambridge Community Gardens Program.
Riverside Press was a book printing plant in an old Cambridge building along the banks of the Charles River. The plant, which Henry Houghton started in 1852, closed in 1971.
In 2012-13 the Riverside Press Park Community Garden was established on the site of the former printing plant. Henrietta Davis, at that time a Cambridge city councilor living near the park, was instrumental in helping designate part of the park for a community garden. At a neighborhood meeting in an adjacent housing tower (808 Memorial Drive), residents voiced enthusiasm for a community garden in Riverside Park. However, there were only a few alternative locations within the park for the garden, and in the end the only feasible location appeared to be immediately adjacent to Memorial Drive.
Paul Poisson, former president of the Tenants Association in the adjacent 808 Memorial Drive, has remained involved in this garden. According to Paul, the garden worked well for several years. The plots were assigned to gardeners who lived mostly in the 808 Tower but also to some from the neighborhood. The gardeners came from many countries and spoke many different languages, which made communication somewhat challenging but worked well enough.
The garden is located within the Riverside Press Park adjacent to Memorial Drive along the Cambridge side of the Charles River between River Street and Western Avenue. This area is a mixed-use neighborhood with single-family and multi-family residences, rental apartments, offices, commercial facilities, and stores. There appear to be many students living in proximity to the park.
While the garden may have suffered from a poor location adjacent to Memorial Drive and from a lack of a neighborhood feeling perhaps due to the presence of so many students, Paul felt the garden’s biggest problems were theft and misuse. People stole produce and then planted their own, taking over plots. People also didn’t feel physically safe in the garden primarily because they were not able to see beyond the back fence into the park, due to tall shrubs. Paul felt the City needed to address these issues, as well as insufficient garden maintenance. They remained unresolved, and two to three years ago, most gardeners did not return.
Recently, Jennifer Letourneau said she thought the solution was to reprogram the garden. Letourneau agreed that a local nonprofit organization, Green Cambridge, should take over management of Riverside Press Community Garden as a pilot program, using its Hurley Farm in East Cambridge as a model for an alternative communal gardening approach. This started in the spring of 2021 and so the transition to this program is still in its infancy.
Green Cambridge is a nonprofit organization that focuses on developing urban agriculture food and nutrition programs in Cambridge. The Green Cambridge mission is to spread urban agriculture across the city, partnering with other organizations like City Sprouts and local schools.
As the model for what Green Cambridge hopes to do at Riverside Press, Hurley Farm offers gardening for the community with no individual plots, so group learning about gardening happens. There is a manager who receives a stipend. Produce goes to gardeners but also to the East End House which has a market every Tuesday.
The garden is set on the far western side of Riverside Press Park. The park is quite large and well maintained, boasting tennis courts, a playground, and lawn areas with various well-used paths crisscrossing the park.
The garden is approximately 100’ X 50’, and is surrounded by a black metal fence on all sides with two gates. The entire garden is paved in asphalt which is in fair condition with weeds growing in the cracks. There are approximately 20 raised planter beds 4 by 8 feet. with wood edges about one foot in height. The planters generally follow a diagonal pattern and are well spaced apart for circulation. There is one metal bench along the edge of the garden, one water closet with a hose, and one wooden kiosk near the main gate which is reminiscent of older park furniture. There is no tool shed.
What Is Grown
A three-foot-wide pollinator bed thrives along the entire length of the border closest to the Charles River. It is informal in layout and provides colorful visual relief from the cars on Memorial Drive. Planted here are poppies, asters, and other perennials. In 2021, a colorful row of tall sunflowers also faced Memorial Drive. There is a hedge of five-foot-high deciduous shrubs along the outside of the fence abutting the adjacent Riverside Press Park that screens most views into or out of the garden.
Approximately half the wooden planters are painted with a green stripe to identify those that Green Cambridge has recently taken over and replanted under their management. These planters look very well maintained with plant-identifying signage. What is growing here includes lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, cabbage, peppers, eggplant, peas, various herbs such as chamomile and mint, and companion flowers. These beds are available to anyone to maintain and harvest as they choose. The kiosk displays a large sign that welcomes people to pick from Green Cambridge beds for themselves. The produce from these beds will also be distributed to shelters.
The other half of the wooden planters have no green paint markings, which appears to indicate they are to be, or have been, assigned by the city to individual gardeners for their own use and harvest.
The specific goals of Green Cambridge for Riverside Press are to have classes about gardening on-site. There will be no “members” of the garden, but three days a week the community—including schools and corporate groups—can participate. The intent is to break down the separateness of the different neighborhoods. The plan is for 200-plus different people to be at the garden throughout the year; of these, 10-15 will be there each week as regulars.
Green Cambridge will conduct online scheduling for when the community can come to the garden, and when classes will be held. Classes are seen as an outreach vehicle to make a place for the community to get together in the garden.
Julia Mintz has been hired as the farm coordinator at Riverside Press and Hurley Farm. Various resources for recruiting gardeners and program participants are being looked at, such as Google Groups, Green Cambridge outreach programs, and students from Boston University. To date, there is no planned outreach to neighborhood residents, although a woman living at the 808 Tower has been asked to help coordinate and recruit potential gardeners from the building.
It will take time to see how the Riverside Press pilot program evolves. Steven Nutter, director of Green Cambridge, has a “wish list” for this garden which sounds promising, but will require financial support. Also, the City will need to decide about addressing the issues that were not attended to in the original garden—security, safety, maintenance of the garden facilities, and pruning of plants. It will be important to see how Green Cambridge can develop a “community” around this garden, which did not happen before. Also to be seen is how well the meshing of individual plots with a communal farming model will work.
Story contributed by the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club. This story was originally published in "Cambridge Community Gardens Today, 2020/2021."