This community garden has always been unique because it is comprised of one shared communal garden plot, as opposed to one plot for each gardener. Planting, maintenance, harvesting, and all other responsibilities are shared by the gardeners. It is a small garden with an almost 50-year history and the person who started this garden is still helping to run it.
Emily Street Garden is located in the Cambridgeport neighborhood on a corner lot bounded by Brookline Street to the north and Emily Street to the east, and by a two-story house on the west. The area is primarily a residential neighborhood, with some small commercial establishments mixed in.
In 1974, the Cambridge Conservation Commission publicized that it would support new community gardens in Cambridgeport, provided citizens could find the lots. A Cambridgeport resident and activist, Bill Cavellini, told the City that he had a site on Emily Street. What ensued was a prolonged time of negotiations between the City and MIT (who owned the plot). In the end, each potential gardener involved in the negotiations signed a document releasing MIT from any liability on the site and restricting use to gardening only.
Presently MIT is in the process of transferring ownership of the garden to the City of Cambridge. The city manager has recently signed a letter that commits the City to maintain the existing role of the gardeners to manage the garden in essentially the same way it has been managed for the last 46 years.
The garden is a single garden plot with 24 beds for 24 crops for 14 households. If you are driving on Brookline Street and pass Emily Street, you could easily miss seeing this garden, since it is only 30 feet wide on Brookline by 100 feet long on Emily, and obscured by 3-foot-high fencing and a raspberry hedge. There is a shade tree which anchors the garden at the corner of Brookline and Emily streets. Entering the garden through the gate on Brookline Avenue, the space appears to be bigger than expected as the garden is so neatly laid out in tight rows fully planted. There is one access path down the middle of the garden, with a tool shed and compost area located next to the abutting house.
What Is Grown
The main goal of the garden is to plant and harvest vegetables. Every year the vegetables include tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, arugula, radishes, peas, beans, peppers, and eggplants. Other vegetables are also often added such as okra, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, and broccoli rabe. Fruits such as raspberries (grown along the fence) and rhubarb have been in the garden since its inception. Various annual and perennial herbs are grown, along with companion flowers such as marigolds, zinnias, and sunflowers.
Vegetables are planted in numerous sequences, starting early and going late in the season. They are grown mostly from seeds, except tomato, pepper, and eggplant, which are purchased as seedlings.
The gardeners are largely from the Cambridgeport neighborhood surrounding Emily Street. Many have participated in the garden for a long time and are from families who were previously involved and are generally active in Cambridgeport in various ways. Two gardeners, Peter Rhodes and Matt Wilson, describe this garden as providing a strong family and community base for the neighborhood.
According to Peter Rhodes this garden has a clear management structure, and everyone takes their garden responsibilities seriously. There is one overall garden coordinator—Bill Cavellini. He was instrumental in getting this garden started in 1974, and is still involved in a major way up to this day. The long-term leadership and mentoring that one coordinator has provided over these many years is an important factor in keeping this garden running continuously and successfully. There are additional garden coordinators assigned for each month during the growing season. These coordinators manage what, when, and who will be planting, watering, weeding, or harvesting.
There are only two meetings per year for the members. One of the meetings is a potluck in winter to evaluate what will be planted for the coming year. The other is a potluck in the fall where food that was harvested during the growing season is cooked and served by and to the gardeners. One gardener said these potlucks were very joyful meals in which gardeners shared dishes made with Emily Garden produce.
Matt Wilson talked about how communal gardening has the benefits of fostering friendships, high-yield production due to crop rotations, and conservation of water, land, and soil. He said their garden was like a farm. There are several workdays in the spring for all gardeners to help clean up, layout planting areas, plant seeds and seedlings, and then again in the fall when the garden is put to bed for winter.
Several members commented on the garden as a community environment for people who want to learn about gardening from others more experienced. The group workdays and evening potlucks promote a sharing of knowledge among members. The garden donates its extra food to shelters in the area, another beneficial experience for the members.
Gardeners pay $20 per year for their membership and use of the garden, which covers purchase of seeds, seedlings, and miscellaneous equipment. Gardeners make compost on-site and salt marsh hay is brought in for mulch.
The City replaced 18 inches of contaminated soil when the garden was first established in 1974. Recently, due to unacceptable amounts of lead, MIT paid for 4 feet of soil to be removed and replaced. The City provides water for the garden that is distributed by hoses at present, but may be replaced soon by an in-ground watering system. The City is considering installing a few raised beds for accessibility as part of City policy.
Gardeners interviewed did not mention any specific problems. They did, however, say that rats have invaded the garden over the last eight years, and spring traps have been installed.
Bill Cavellini, Peter and Matt, and other gardeners talked to, are proud of this garden and feel it could serve as an inspiration to other community gardens that have only small individual plots. They feel their garden model has strong benefits—with its sense of community and with the amount and diversity of plants that can be grown. Most of all they feel the learning environment and camaraderie generated by the shared garden is a real asset to their life in the neighborhood.
Story contributed by the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club. This story was originally published in "Cambridge Community Gardens Today, 2020/2021."