This is part one of a two-part series on community gardens at Avesta properties.
Gardening is a newfound passion for Benny. He had a small garden years ago but said he gave up on it after his wife died in 1983. A former Portland cab driver, Benny has lived at Avesta’s Jordan Bay Place, a housing community for people 62+ in Raymond, for six years but didn’t get involved in the community garden until last year.
And now he’s hooked.
He visits the garden — a dozen times a day — and half-jokingly admits to singing to the plants. “I didn’t think I’d get into it this much,” he says.
Benny is one of a handful of residents at Jordan Bay who have thrown themselves into the community garden. On a recent overcast day, the residents were out surveying the garden with Michial Russell, the farm manager for Pearson’s Town Farm at Saint Joseph’s College. Michial has been helping the residents double the size of their garden this year, thanks to a $400 grant from Kitchen Gardeners International, a Scarborough-based nonprofit. The grant provided the funding for four new raised beds, which Michial helped the residents build.
“It’s part of our commitment to helping people,” Michial says. “I enjoy getting out and helping people get going and eat better.”
Benny and his neighbors list off this year’s crops: squash, green peppers, tomatoes, beans, cauliflower, radishes, beets, cantaloupe and herbs, to name a few. Residents who are interested in gardening divvy up space in the beds volunteer their time and skills growing and harvesting the fruits and veggies. They share their harvest with their neighbors by putting it in a basket in the community room.
“It keeps us busy,” Benny says about the garden. “It’s great for conversation. People are constantly talking about it and what’s going on out here.”
As he surveys the garden, Benny talks about the A-frames he built last year for the cucumbers, and points out the seaweed he’s using as fertilizer. His gardening success is the result of techniques and tips he’s gleaned from YouTube, like using bars of soap dangling from plant stakes to ward off critters.
For Junior, another Jordan Bay resident, gardening is an old habit. He worked on a farm for most of his life, whether it was his grandparents’ farm, the Watkins farm in Casco or the 50-acre cattle farm he owned for 25 years.
For both Junior and Benny, the garden is more than a hobby — it’s a way to stay healthy. Working in the garden provided Benny a push to take on more physical activity; both he and Junior take daily 4-5 mile walks. Benny’s health conditions — diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol — have improved or disappeared altogether through his commitment to the garden.
“The garden is my exercise.”