This piece by Rachelle Graham highlights the history and transformation of Winchester Community Garden, one of New Haven’s first community gardens.
Marlene and Jerome Tureck are among the first gardeners of Winchester Community Garden, when it was built nearly 20 years ago. Over the years, Marlene has collected photos, documents, newspaper clippings and invitations documenting the garden’s transformation. This album reveals the story of how the garden has evolved over the years, and its importance to the neighborhood.
The idea for the garden was conceived in 1996, when the Dixwell Block Watch, a neighborhood crime protection organization, went door-to-door and collected signatures in the neighborhood. The Block Watch and other neighbors wanted to build a community garden on the corner of Webster and Winchester, a location formerly occupied by a vacant liquor store. On May 17th, 1997, their efforts came to fruition. The community, along with the help of the New Haven Land Trust (NHLT), the Livable City Initiative (LCI), and United Illuminating (UI), came together to raise the fence for the garden. Marlene describes this day triumphantly, “We completed this whole fence in one day. One day! There were volunteers from everywhere. At one point there were over 100 people at least to volunteer putting up this fence.” The fence was designed by the neighbors and featured flower boxes along the top of the fence. Above the gate hung a wooden sign proudly reading: “Community Garden.” Although they were unable to plant inside raised beds during the first year, the gardeners created mounds of soil and compost to plant their first year’s crops. Every year, the gardeners add personal touches to the garden; new raised beds, a bird bath, benches, herbs and flowers. Pieces of the fence and garden beds have been replaced over time, but the original structures and motivations from that first day remain intact.
What makes the Winchester Garden unique? The Winchester gardeners have faced many struggles common to community gardens and have come out on top; land ownership, participation, pests and theft to name a few.
Participation in community gardens tends to fluctuate year-to-year as neighborhoods change, but there are five Winchester gardeners who have held onto their plots since that first day in 1997. Residents from Dwight neighborhood share the space with Yale staff and students who share a passion for gardening. The Winchester garden is a reflection of the rich cultural backgrounds found in New Haven.
The community gardens are leased from the city to the New Haven Land Trust (NHLT) on short-term leases. In return, NHLT helps the community members maintain the property. Short-term leases are not always a perfect arrangement. In 2001, due to miscommunication between the city and NHLT, a community garden was demolished without warning to NHLT or the gardeners.
This event revealed the underlying flaws of the short-term leases. A compromise was reached in which the Land Trust gained full ownership of the Winchester Garden in exchange for the property that had been demolished by the city. Other gardens are now better protected against accidents like this. While the arrangement changes only a few logistics of the day-to-day operations at the garden, this agreement has helped to ensure the long-term success of the garden because it has become a permanent fixture in the neighborhood.
The Winchester gardeners have learned to deal with unexpected surprises including uninvited woodchuck and pest visitors, and more serious issues of theft. However, they have dealt with each of these circumstances sensibly and with grace They’ve humanely trapped and released the family of woodchucks that appropriated the garden as its new residence. They adopted innovative organic methods to safeguard their precious plants from pests — for example, strategically planting cayenne peppers to which many pests have a natural aversion. They even adjust their planting decisions to reduce the amount of theft. Crops that are harder to see or identify, like peas or sweet potatoes, are less likely to be stolen.
Each garden in New Haven has its own personality, obstacles, and goals. Consequently, whether the garden succeeds or fails is up to its gardeners. The Winchester Community Garden continues to thrive after nearly 20 years, now under the strong leadership of Garden Coordinator Meredith Binford and the dedication of all of its gardeners. The garden will continue to provide a safe space for anyone interested in growing fresh fruits and vegetables and creating new acquaintances.
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