Squirrel Brand Community Garden (originally known as the Broadway & Boardman Community Garden) has seen many changes since its inception in 1977. Although it is now less than half its original size it still retains much of its grass-roots-based character and is a vibrant part of this diverse neighborhood.
The garden is located in The Port between the old Squirrel Brand Factory and Broadway Street. A small municipal park is on the east adjacent side and a parking lot on the west.
Squirrel Brand Community Garden acquired its name from the Squirrel Brand Nut Company, which was located at the junction of Boardman Street and Broadway in The Port district of Cambridge. In 1975, the owners of the company (which had been in Cambridge since 1899) donated the land in front of the factory to its employees and neighbors, for use as a community garden. It was named the Broadway & Boardman Community Garden and there were eventually 50 plots in this space. At first there was no water supply so people in neighboring houses let gardeners run hoses from their outlets to a barrel in the garden, but in 1984 the Cambridge Water Department installed a faucet, and more barrels were added. The garden thrived—with compost demonstrations from Robert Winters (the Cambridge authority on composting); Open Garden events; a citation for long-term community involvement from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society; and fully occupied plots.
In 1998, following the death of the owner of the Squirrel Brand Company, the future of the garden was uncertain. In March of that year eight gardeners spoke at a City Council meeting and gave an impassioned plea to save the garden. Later—in 1999— a group of gardeners went door to door in the neighborhood gathering signatures with a petition to save the garden. One of these was Shannon Temple, who was in the garden three or four days a week. The pale pink climbing rose she tended, where Boardman and Broadway streets meet, grew to a great height and stretched halfway down the fence on Broadway Street, becoming a neighborhood attraction. In that heyday the garden was described as a “lush urban oasis.”
In 1999, the City bought the property and two years later Just-A-Start turned the factory building into affordable housing. The community garden space was redesigned as part park, part garden. The twenty or so gardeners who lost plots when the land was divided were very discouraged, and few—if any—applied for plots in the new garden that opened in 2005.
The size of the present garden is about 100’ X 50’. It has 34 plots that are approximately 10 by10 feet, with a larger, rectangular, raised plot near the gate. It is surrounded on three sides by chain link fencing with an ornamental metal fence facing Broadway. There is one gate. When the City acquired the land it removed several feet of lead-contaminated soil and replaced it with new topsoil, but according to two present gardeners the soil is still quite poor. The plots have many different configurations and some owners have subdivided them into two, three, or four sections. There are two benches next to the raised bed and four hoses. The only really shady spot is directly under the crab apple trees on the south side of the garden. The three main pathways (made from concrete pavers) are partly obscured with soil and weeds. There is a broken-down wooden container for shared tools and a large locked plastic chest. The plot that once was used for compost is now abandoned as the City has disallowed composting because of the risk of attracting rats.
What Is Grown
Most plots are given over entirely to vegetables. Tomatoes and greens are most conspicuous but other vegetables include pickling cucumbers, summer squash, basil, and kohlrabi.
A large percentage of the gardeners still come from two or three blocks away. It is a racially diverse neighborhood with a high percentage of student rentals. As well as individual gardeners there are plots taken by CitySprouts (for Maynard School), Violeta Day Care, Cambridge Community Arts Center and Cambridge City Growers. The latter are a group that started in 2020 during COVID-19, with the aim of growing and sharing food communally. When combined, these community endeavors may eventually occupy about 25% of the garden.
Toni Bee lived in the Squirrel Brand building for 18 years but did not become a gardener at Squirrel Brand until 2020, the year she moved into nearby housing. She is a founding member of Cambridge Black Lives Matter and also a poet who has brought other poets to the garden for regular poetry readings. The first plot she was allocated was under the crab apple trees but she rejected this because it was hard to grow anything in the shade, and the crab apples were constantly falling on the plot. The plot assignment did however lend its name to the Crabapple Gardeners, a group that formed at Squirrel Brand and to which Toni belongs. It is similar in aim to Cambridge City Growers—a collection of neighbors whose intent is to acquire land, grow food, and strengthen the community.
Patricia McGrath was the coordinator of the garden from 2014-2021. During that time she found herself dealing with many problems. There was no effective waiting list when she started, and frequently people signed up for plots and then gave up halfway through the summer. The year 2020 was particularly difficult with thefts of tools, plant, and fertilizer, intimidation, accusations of racism, and even one gardener filing a police report when his garden—which appeared abandoned but was actually planted with seeds—was dug up.
When Patricia left in the spring of 2021 three gardeners—Santos Carrasquillo, Liz Layton, and Esther Hanig—responded to a request from the Conservation Commission director for volunteers to share the coordinating. Liz had gardened in the original Broadway & Boardman Community Garden from 1990-1999 and only recently returned to the “new” garden. Esther was at the Moore Street Community Garden for several years but found the soil there to be very poor and felt threatened by one of the families who gardened there. She has been at Squirrel Brand for several years and is a keen vegetable grower. Liz is one of the few gardeners who plants flowers as well as vegetables. This year she is planning to grow greens and tomatoes in a small raised bed and surround them with pollinators such as milkweed.
There is general agreement that a tool shed is needed to replace the broken wooden container, and that new borders for raised beds (possibly made from galvanized metal) should replace the wooden ones that have rotted. Both these items are at present on the City’s Participatory Budgeting website. Also being discussed is moving the benches from next to the raised bed to underneath the crab apple trees—so that gardeners and guests can sit in the shade—and replacing them with a raised bed for wheelchair gardeners.
The volunteer coordinator role has been challenging, but with garden events planned, and meetings to discuss outreach (especially to affordable housing neighborhoods), the coordinators hope to create a welcoming atmosphere for a diverse community of gardeners, and oversee a successful mixture of individual and group gardening.
Story contributed by the Cambridge Plant and Garden Club. This story was originally published in "Cambridge Community Gardens Today, 2020/2021."