Though the subzero temperatures of this winter might make thoughts of spring seem like a distant hope, gardeners in Woolwich Township know that warmer temperatures are just around the corner.
Spring isn’t only a time when beautiful flowers begin to poke their way through the earth, it is also an important season for gardeners planning ahead for a lush vegetable crop that will last through the summer months. As warmer weather approaches, participants in the Swedesboro and Woolwich Community Garden are already dreaming about ripe tomatoes, juicy strawberries, and crisp green beans.
Woolwich Township, located in the heart of New Jersey farmland, is home to a number of gardening enthusiasts. However, as Carolyn Grasso, a member of the Swedesboro Woolwich Joint Environmental Commission explained, there are a number of Woolwich residents who either do not have a yard, or are restricted from having a vegetable garden on their own land, such as the residents of the Four Seasons at Weatherby community located on Center Square Road.
It was out of this need for a collective gardening space that the concept of a Swedesboro and Woolwich Township Community Garden was born. The garden, located adjacent to the Woolwich Township Municipal Building on Village Green Drive, is located just a few steps away from the municipal parking lot.
“The Swedesboro and Woolwich Community Garden, now entering its eighth season, provides an opportunity for residents to have their own ‘mini farm,” said Mike Eckman, a local resident who has participated in the garden for several years.
Since the garden opened in 2008 it has continued to grow in popularity, and last season reached an all-time high of 22 assigned plots. Jordan Schlump, the volunteer garden coordinator, estimates that the garden is able to accommodate about 44 individual plots.
Joining the garden is relatively simple. Residents are able to register for a 20 foot by 30 foot plot for only $25. Gardeners can grow vegetables, fruit, and/or flowers.
“This nominal fee covers the cost to have the plot initially tilled and prepared at the beginning of the growing season. We thank Joe Maugeri, a local farmer, for generously donating his tractor, time, and energy in accomplishing this task,” Eckman said.
“With plenty of room to grow, there are hopes that this season will see the number of assigned plots exceed last year’s total,” Eckman added. His words speak to the sense of camaraderie and friendship that develops between the gardeners as they learn from and help one another through the growing season. New members are welcomed and encouraged.
The garden is not just for those with an established green thumb, new gardeners are also encouraged to come and learn alongside their neighbors. Christine Sirko, who has participated in the garden for the last three years, explained that she was nervous about signing up for the first time.
“I originally read about the garden in ‘The Press’ and the first year I didn’t do it because I thought I needed a lot of help. Somehow I felt I couldn’t do it on my own. Well, the next year I was determined to do it and I did. I got some advice from my neighboring gardener and it was fun.”
Sirko also added that enjoying the rewards of harvest season was her favorite part of participating in the garden. “The soil is very rich, so it seems that even I can grow beautiful flowers and healthy vegetables. We love eating from the garden and my granddaughters get excited about planting things and watching them grow.”
Certainly, the core of the garden is the sense of teamwork and community felt among the participants. Schlump, who as volunteer garden coordinator, not only handles the administration and planning of the garden, also takes it upon himself to provide helpful tips and suggestions to all of the participants.
“He has even been known to photograph plant pests, advising fellow gardeners what the pest is and what it will do within the garden, and suggestions for getting rid of them,” Eckman said.
Schlump said that he gets his expertise froms when he was just a child through his involvement with 4H. The fact that both of his grandfathers owned farms in the local area also fueled his passion for gardening.
“Most of the people signing up for the Community Garden indicated to me that they just wanted to grow fresh veggies for their home use; but to me, gardening is my therapy,” said Schlump.
As coordinator, Schlump takes a very personal interest in helping his fellow gardeners succeed. Last year, he organized a field trip to visit other community gardens in Woodbury, Collingswood, Salem, Pennsauken, and Hillsborough. Learning what other communities are doing, and what makes them successful, is key in continuing to improve the garden in Woolwich.
For Schlump, one of the most valuable parts of participating in a community garden, rather than just his own personal garden at home, is the opportunity to share experiences and learn from other gardeners. To further the goal of teamwork and cooperation he organized a meeting at the conclusion of last season for gardeners to engage in a discussion of the lessons they had learned during the gardening season. He also created a Facebook page for the garden, where participants can join to ask questions, engage in discussion, and share photos and experiences both during and after the growing season.
As the garden continues to grow, Eckman noted that teamwork is also necessary to keep the garden looking its best. It is important for prospective gardeners to know that all community garden participants are asked to agree to a set of guidelines to make the experience positive for all those involved.
“Gardeners understand that this is a community garden and that in order for it to succeed, gardener support is needed to maintain the site, manage compost, keep on top of weeds, deal with wildlife, and keep the site debris free,” the application states.
As more people begin to rent space in the garden, maintaining personal responsibility for individual plots is key. One unruly plot could have negative effects on the crops of all of the other gardeners.
It isn’t just the residents who see the value of the garden. The Woolwich Township Committee has also made it a priority to show their support.
In addition to providing a convenient space next to the municipal building, they also make water available in large storage tanks in close proximity to the garden to assist in watering during periods of inadequate rainfall. Also new this year, in order to assist gardeners in having easy access to their gardening tools in close proximity to their plot, the Township Committee has approved a Community Garden shed to be placed in the parking lot near the garden. This will allow gardeners to store their tools and garden supplies on site, rather than hauling them to and from their homes.
While the concept of a community garden originally began out of a proposal from a resident of Four Seasons at Weatherby, a 55 and over community that has restrictions on the landscaping that residents can maintain in their yards, the garden has blossomed beyond providing personal enjoyment and into an avenue for residents to give back to the community as well.
Woolwich Brownie Troop leader Theresa Carbone participated in the garden last year as part of a service project with her troop of girls. “Our Troop 61075 participated in the community garden for the first time last year. We paired up with another troop and worked together in putting up fencing, planting, and tending the garden. We saw this as a great opportunity for our girls to experience the joys of gardening and community service all in one,” Carbone said.
Not only did the troop learning about growing healthy plants, they also learned some important lessons in using their harvest to help others in need. “All of the food we grew was donated to the Kings Things food pantry in Swedesboro as part of our ongoing theme of giving back to our community.
“The girls grew and donated tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and watermelon. Each girl and her family were assigned one week over the summer to tend to the weeding and watering. We would post pictures online to keep track of the progress we witnessed weekly. The girls now have a better understanding of how much time and effort goes into the fruit and vegetables in their local market,” Carbone said.
It wasn’t the first time that local scouts gave back to the community in this way. Grasso recalls that the scouts first got involved four years ago when a fellow member of the environmental commission signed up her troop for two plots to grow and harvest vegetables for donation to the food pantry.
The example of generosity set by the scouts inspired other garden participants to follow their lead. Last season, many of the gardeners not only shared their excess bounty with one another, but also contributed some of their abundance to local food pantries as well.
As the garden enters its eighth season, both Schlump and Eckman look forward to meeting new gardeners and expanding membership to include both new gardeners and experienced green thumbs. Schlump notes that while the garden was primarily established for Woolwich residents, gardeners from other townships are welcome to rent a space as long as there are enough plots available.
Interested residents can contact the Woolwich Township clerk at 856-467-2666 (ext. 3101) or simply stop by her office in the Woolwich Township Municipal Building at 120 Village Green Drive to fill out an application and pay the $25 fee.
Eckman echoes Schlump’s openness to welcoming the community at large. He quoted a motto shared by community gardens throughout the country. “Community gardens are spaces where individuals come together to grow food, build relationships, and celebrate their communities.”
Certainly, for Woolwich, over the last seven seasons, the garden has bloomed into a place where people can cultivate their passion for gardening, build new friendships, and give back to others in need.