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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    Volunteers cultivate 'what the land has given' for those in need

    Volunteer Mary Royce, right, of Niantic hands off a basket of kale to Judy Engel of East Lyme on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the East Lyme Giving Garden. The local nonprofit already has donated roughly 500 pounds of vegetables to the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

    East Lyme — East Lyme Giving Garden manager Liz Farley said land on Church Lane has given the budding nonprofit organization a great crop in its first year.

    Farley this week looked out over eight, 120-foot-long rows of carefully tended soil as she pulled the garden fabric off one of the front sections.

    "I'm so proud of the cabbage heads," she said, revealing the gigantic leafy brassicas thriving beneath the opaque cover designed to protect them from pests and the elements. "This is what I mean when I say what the land has given us."

    The Giving Garden, which is in its first year at the Church Lane site, already had produced 644 pounds of food by Monday. Crates of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cucumbers and zucchini have been delivered to the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center in New London since the first seedlings began yielding produce about a month ago.

    "Everything grown here goes to feed the food insecure of southeastern Connecticut," she said.

    Statistics from the United Way show one in six children in the region is experiencing food insecurity, compared to one in seven nationally. That means they lack consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

    The food center last year distributed the equivalent of 2,047,459 meals and snacks through 76 distribution sites including food pantries, shelters, child care centers, community meal sites, programs for the elderly and the United Way's Mobile Food Pantry.

    Farley said people often confuse the idea of the Giving Garden with the popular community garden concept, which provides plots where people can grow their own food. She said a few people have shown up on Church Lane inquiring if they can do their gardening there.

    "Well, yes," Farley said, laughing. "But you can't take it home."

    The Giving Garden itself can trace its roots back to a local community garden, having gotten its start last year on 20 donated plots at the Samuel Smith Farmstead on Plants Dam Road. But Lindsay Rush, secretary of the East Lyme Giving Garden board of directors, said the donation of 4 acres of land from the Flanders Baptist and Community Church got the organization where it is today.

    The Rev. Alan Scott, pastor at Flanders Baptist and Community Church, said the church applauds the work done by the members of the Giving Garden. "We in the church are grateful that this land could be used to grow produce for the needy," he said.

    Farley said the land, which had been farmed over generations — including by Scott's great-grandfather, Frank Bruce — was "basically barren" by the time the Giving Garden came in.

    Since there was no organic material or minerals left to support growth, the group set to applying compost, adding minerals, throwing in a little lime to counter the acidity of the chicken manure and applying rye as a cover crop. Electrical and irrigation systems were installed. An office, shed and wash stations were built.

    By May, the group was ready to plant 550 seedlings grown by the Eastern Connecticut Community Garden Association. Farley said the four founding members of the Giving Garden had specifically chosen high-production, low-maintenance and disease-resistant crops.

    "At that time we had no idea if we would have a good volunteer staff, so we wanted something we could just plant and run with," she said.

    But support came from groups including the Niantic Lions Club, the Shoreline East Lyme Leos Club, the Rotary Interact Club of East Lyme High School, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as numerous individuals who come out to help at the volunteer sessions typically held three days a week in the morning before the sun gets too overpowering.

    The group also held two fundraisers that yielded about $30,000 in total, thanks to matching funds from SustainableCT.

    Farley said the costs going forward are expected to be about $10,000 per year, covering things like insurance, electricity and a wireless internet connection.

    The success of the garden is not just about the core group of nine people that run the day-to-day operations, according to Rush — "This has been built by the community."

    Both Farley and Rush emphasized that there's no experience necessary to help out in the garden, which Rush said is as "organic as possible" without jumping through the hoops necessary to get the official designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    Farley put it this way: "You don't need experience to use a snip to take zucchini off."

    Rush pointed to the volunteers who find it therapeutic to weed. "When we see them, it's like 'Yes! We have a place for you,'" she said.

    More information is available at eastlymegivinggarden.org.

    e.regan@theday.com

    Volunteers John Williams, left, and Sally Uden, both of East Lyme, work on staking a pepper plant Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the East Lyme Giving Garden. The local nonprofit already has donated roughly 500 pounds of vegetables to the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Volunteer Mary Royce of Niantic picks cucumbers from vines Thursday, July 15, 2021, as Carol Ann Cray of East Lyme walks by at the East Lyme Giving Garden. The local nonprofit already has donated roughly 500 pounds of vegetables to the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Volunteer Judy Engel carries buckets of kale Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the East Lyme Giving Garden. The local nonprofit already has donated roughly 500 pounds of vegetables to the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Volunteer John Williams harvests a ripe bell pepper Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the East Lyme Giving Garden. The local nonprofit already has donated roughly 500 pounds of vegetables to the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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