Community Gardens Provide Sustenance, Promote Cooperation, and Are A Nod to Our Agricultural History

Amid sprouting warehouses, suburban development, and increasing congestion in our area, there remains a lovely botanical oasis safely tucked away behind the Woolwich Township Municipal Building near the corner of Center Square and Auburn Roads.

The Woolwich Township Community Garden is tended by a group of knowledgeable and dedicated gardeners who work in unison to keep this agrarian haven thriving during the warm-weather months.

Retired couple Bruce and Dolly Warner live in the Four Seasons retirement community in Woolwich Township, which does not allow gardening on the premises. The nearby community garden gives them the opportunity to continue their passion for growing, and allows them to interact with other gardeners.

The garden was established in 2011 by Woolwich Township Administrator and Clerk Jane DiBella.

“I started the garden after seeing the need for residents living on small lots to have available space to garden. With so much additional space at the new [municipal] facility, there was plenty of room to create the garden. I also have a soft spot for gardening, after having come from a farming family. The garden further serves the township as a relic of its historic agricultural history.”

The garden consists of 52, 20 by 30 foot plots. Half plots of 20 by 15 are also available.

“The garden started out small,” reported DiBella, “with just 20 by 30 plots, and has grown to the current 47 full plots and 10 half plots.”

DiBella became the garden coordinator in 2020, taking over the role from former mayor, Jordan Schlump. Each March, local farmer Joe Maugeri plows the land, then each plot is measured and staked by DiBella and the Swedesboro/Woolwich Environmental Commission.

In addition to providing the land, the township supports the garden by mowing and maintaining the grass surrounding the garden and helping with equipment repairs and replacement. 

DiBella coordinates garden emails, contact info, trouble shooting, the garden map, the applications, and other administrative efforts that keep the garden going. The garden also boasts its own newsletter and Facebook page.

In addition to gardeners enjoying their own fresh produce, the garden also promotes a sense of community.

“There is a myriad of vegetables grown, and participants generally share tips (and harvest) and hold pot lucks and pizza parties at the garden. Extra produce is also shared with community food banks,” said DiBella.

Some members of the student garden club, which tends four plots in the Woolwich Township Community Garden. The club consists of 30 students from Stratton and Harker schools in the Swedesboro-Woolwich District.

To encourage a new generation of gardeners, a children’s garden was started last year by Swedesboro resident and second grade teacher Lynne Bussot. The club consists of 30 first to fifth grade students from the Swedesboro-Woolwich district who meet two mornings a week.

The student garden is large, encompassing four plots. All plants were grown from seed by the students, with some started in Bussot’s classroom in March, and some sowed directly into the ground in the spring.

The children participate in all aspects of maintaining the garden, including hoeing and raking, composting, creating flower beds, mulching, making mounds and rows in preparation for planting, transplanting seedlings, direct sowing, and harvesting.

Being involved in the entire process gives the children the full growing experience, from planting to harvesting.

Bussot, who started as a gardener by container growing during the pandemic, also enjoys the pastime on a personal level.

“Gardening is a great stress reliever. Getting your hands in dirt is therapeutic, and growing your own food and tending a garden consistently over time with patience and practice and physical work is very good for mental health.”

Thirty-three-year-old Woolwich residentRebecca Coughlan is also bringing a new generation of gardeners to Woolwich this year. 

Coughlan leads Daisy Girl Scout Troop 60162, who has adopted a plot as a service project. The rising first-graders have donated their harvests to the local food bank, with the exception of a few items they have sampled.

“It’s been a great way to encourage the girls to try new foods. They all tried freshly harvested radishes and tomatoes,” Coughlan said.

Artist-writer Jeff Quattrone has been a part of the Woolwich Township Community Garden for four years and is a passionate advocate for the biodiversity of Jersey Tomatoes. He says he enjoys gardening because of the connection he gets to nature, to something bigger than himself.

“The community of gardeners has been extremely supportive,” she continued. “The girls have learned about the science of plants and gardening, the work that goes into growing the food we eat, and the importance of giving back to the community.

“Altogether, we have grown radishes, onions, zucchini, cucumbers, eggplant, bell peppers, jalapeños, and tomatoes. They have also started a pumpkin patch on the adjacent plot and are excited to have some self-grown Halloween decorations!”

Retired Woolwich Township residents Dolly and Bruce Warner have been members of the community garden for five years. Dolly holds a master gardener’s certificate from Perdue University and enjoys designing and tending the garden, and Bruce helps her vision materialize by setting up fences, gates, and watering.

The Warner’s enjoy experimenting with different vegetables and are growing a myriad of plants this year, including varieties of tomatoes and potatoes, peas, peppers, squash, onions, cucumbers, beets, beans, watermelon, swiss chard, lettuce, peanuts, carrots, and several herbs and flowers.

The couple have nothing but praise for the township’s support of the garden and enjoy interacting with their fellow growers.

“Jane and Woolwich Township have made this a very positive experience. There are many different types of gardening, and it is fun to watch how the various styles thrive or fail. There is no judgement and everyone is very caring and shares plentiful crops.”

Jeff Quattrone is an artist by trade, much of his work botanical in nature, and it’s his fourth year at the community garden. The Woodstown resident is a seed historian and heirloom seed activist, and has a particular passion for New Jersey tomatoes.

A gardener since childhood, Quattrone now engages in multiple garden and tomato-related projects, including penning a Modern Farmer article about the legacy of Campbell’s Soup Jersey tomato breeds that was reprinted in Smithsonian Magazine.

“I love to garden because it connects me to nature, history, and my family’s roots. I have Italian varieties from the regions my grandparents are from. I like to think that I’ve shared tastes with distant relatives through the food they grew, and that I grow now.

“Tomatoes are my main crop. I just love the biodiversity of them, and it’s Jersey, so it would be sacrilege not to grow them,” he said.

“My most recent work includes reviving functionally extinct historic Jersey tomatoes. I’ve revived three so far, and have potentially three more this year provided the tomatoes make it to harvest stage,” reported Quattrone.

Quattrone’s Library Seed Bank project brought the concept of seed libraries to the South Jersey area in 2014. Working with the Gloucester County Library System, he and his partners have created a public seed library, where community members can choose seeds from their inventory and pick them up at a chosen branch, including Swedesboro and Logan Township.

Sixty-five-year-old Woodstown resident Kimberly Hunter is an artist, house cleaner, mother, and gardener. One of the things she enjoys about the garden are the multiple cultures represented.

“The other day I had some young basil plants I was looking for a home for, and walked up to the other end of the garden where two women were working. Their accents were captivating, [and I found out] they are from Ghana, Africa. Next to my plot are a wonderful father and son team from Ukraine and a few [plots] down my nice friend is from India.”

Home gardening had been part of Hunter’s life since childhood, and when she moved to Philadelphia in the 1980’s, she became aware of the community garden scene.

“Community gardens were thriving and growing all over the city. It was awesome.”

Now part of the Woolwich Community Garden, Hunter grows food all summer that she can preserve and freeze to use throughout the winter.

“When it all comes in in August I will be busy. I want good salsa for the winter and homemade tomato soup for my freezer. In the moment, gazpacho is on the list.”

Woolwich Township resident and retired computer programmer Wilhelmena Battle has been a member of the community garden for over 10 years, along with her husband Bob.

Woolwich Township resident Wilhelmena Battle has been a community garden member with her husband Bob for over 10 years. The pair grow a large variety of produce, including collard greens, turnips, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, okra, butter beans, Italian beans, string beans, tender greens, beets, onions, yellow squash, zucchini, butternut squash, watermelons, pumpkins, plum tomatoes, and cucumbers.

“I was born in South Carolina so I tend to plant lots of southern food,” Battle began.

“I am from a large family and have lots of friends so I share with them. I also freeze lots of my vegetables to have for the wintertime.

“I find gardening is a great stress reliever for me.”

Woolwich Environmental Commission member Diana Keyser, who has two garden plots with her husband Bob, agrees. After a busy workday it is our relaxing and edible “wind-down time.”

Hunter thinks that community gardens should be a part of every town.

“A permanent place should be set aside and never sold. You notice many people care about the whole, and all community gardens bring a connection to different types of people and cultures which can soften views and create positive ideas,” she said.

Arthur Smith of Logan Township agrees. Sixty-four-year-old retiree Smith has been tending plots in the new Logan Township community garden, which was started in 2021 by Mayor Frank Minor and the Township Council. The garden is located on Main Street in downtown Bridgeport.

Retired Logan Township resident Arthur Smith proudly displays a watermelon he grew from seed. Smith has been instrumental in maintaining and promoting the Logan Township community garden. The garden is in its first season and is looking for new members.

Smith, who has been gardening since age 12, is hoping to help grow the garden’s membership. Right now, the garden consists of 12 raised and bordered plots.

“Ideas for next year at the Logan garden are to build a small compost area and a stand for our veggies. I don’t plan to charge for the veggies, just give them away to whoever wants them,” he said.

Smith also plans to improve the garden watering system, which is now a large tank for gardeners to draw from. He will also be contacting local schools to invite gardening clubs to join the community.

Woolwich Township Garden registration opens annually on March 1. Returning gardeners have until March 31 to renew. After March 31, remaining plots are open. The annual lease is $30 for a full plot and $15 for half plot. https://woolwichtwp.org/departments/parks-recreation/community-garden/

To join the Logan Community Garden, fill out the membership application available on the township website, call 856-467-3424, or pick up a copy from Jared Rollins, Administrative Assistant to Mayor Minor, at the township building. The season begins March 1.

Visit the Library Seed Bank website at: https://www.libraryseedbank.info/seed-libraries

By Colleen Woods-Esposito

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