Category Archives: Community Garden

The Mill Has Some Gloss

North Mill in Biddeford, Maine

Dear Reader:

I love old mill towns. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps because I didn’t grow up in a mill town, I am fascinated by the novelty of an industrial-ish landscape. These manufacturing communities are cities, not towns, I suppose, but they are not cities of high-rise apartment buildings, corporate offices for national food chains and banks, and big shopping malls. These Maine city-towns have Main Streets, corner stores, local tobacco shops, and hundred-year-old bakeries; triple-decker apartment buildings that used to house the mill workers, big Catholic cathedrals with a satisfying Gothic flair, and a turn-of-the-century architectural style that for one reason or another sets my creative juices flowing; people who sometimes speak with the slight accent, still, of the St. George River Valley. I love it!

Across the river in Saco

When I lived in Westbrook, my daily walk took me past one of these slumbering manufacturing behmoths that had been built along the tumbling river that once powered the building’s machinery. Incidentally, I would also walk past the still-operating paper mill at the other end of Main Street. I would look up at the even rows of windows, the geometric simplicity of those windows and the pattern of red-orange brick, and imagine an earlier time when people walked from the neighboring streets to punch in to work for the day. They’d be carrying their tin lunch boxes. They’d be tired already, perhaps, at the end of a long week, or else young and cheerful and hopeful.

I’m sure I’m romanticizing the whole thing. That’s my nature.

Since moving even further south, I’ve spent time driving into Sanford, often routing past the empty, old textile buildings there and dreaming of how they could be repurposed. I even wrote two romance novels set in towns like these. Apparently, I’m a little obsessed.

From www.goodreads.com

Maybe it has something to do with Richard Russo. His EMPIRE FALLS is brilliant, of course. It is the story of a town and its citizens trying to come to grips with a new economy where manufacturing takes place in China or India or Mexico, and the people left behind at home buy the finished products and struggle to figure out what to do now. I loved EMPIRE FALLS. I recognized it. There is a kind of sad romanticism to these crumbling, quiet buildings. Like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, they’ve seen better days.

Enter Biddeford. I’ve been to this small city many times in the past few years, taking the Teen to the orthodontist and myself to the allergist over near Southern Maine Med, but I’d only visited downtown twice–once to eat at a great little Indian restaurant, The Jewel of India, and another time to have coffee with a friend at the old mill building. So, on a sunny day last week, I decided to check out the refurbished North Dam Mill again–this time with my camera and a notebook in hand.

Smokestack Tower

The first mill established here in the 17th century was an iron manufacturing business. Eventually, large buildings were erected on both the Biddeford and Saco sides of the Saco River and workers flooded into the cities, creating a booming textile manufacturing center. Read about the history and see some great archival photos at the Maine Memory Network site.

Eventually the mills closed. A few years ago, developer Doug Sanford bought the property and re-purposed the wonderful buildings into retail, office, and living space. Click HERE to visit the Pepperell Mill/North Dam Mill website.

Art Outside the Mill

On this day, I take a few photos of the impressive smokestack near the parking lot and then stroll into the reception area on the main floor of building 18. The large hallway is dim, with its exposed pipes painted black to blend in with the black ceiling. An expansive red Oriental rug anchors two over-sized leather couches in a sitting area. Right near the windows of a small off-shoot of a hall, a tiny coffee shop wafts acoustic music and the aroma of fresh-ground java.

This is “Perk”…and while I sit at the narrow counter in front of the windows, a few residents drift in to order lunch or coffee. The young guy behind the counter makes pleasant chit-chat with everyone. His co-worker is busy making sandwiches or something. I hear clanging pans behind the music (Sarah Brightman, maybe?)piped in over the speakers

Outside the windows, I can see the river across the road, traffic zipping past, three guys hanging out near the benches and steel flower sculpture near the entrance. Neighbors chatting? I think so.

The entire place makes me think of a castle, the walls rising along the river and road like ramparts, the smokestack a watchtower. Inside are art studios and professional offices on this main floor. A sign beside me reads, “River’s Edge Wood Products: Showroom open on an appointment basis.” Upstairs floors are dedicated to apartments.

Exposed pipe against a white-painted brick wall

I can imagine living here. The exposed pipes. The high ceilings. The well-used hardwood flooring. Mostly, though, I love the idea of living within biking/walking distance to Main St. and all the great local stores and restaurants and the library. The Amtrak station is a short walk, as well, for trips to Boston and beyond. Living close to neighbors. Stopping for a morning latte at Perk.

Art in the hallway

This is a New-Urbanists dream! Click HERE to read about New Urbanism. Walkability. Diversity of purpose. Community and connectivity. Traditional neighborhood structure. Common space. I’d like to see a community garden somewhere here–maybe on the roof!

The Saco River

I took this picture from a little patio off the parking lot overlooking the river. The Saco side of the mills are across the water.

Windmill at the Mill

Isn’t the juxtaposition between the old water/coal-powered mill and the new, space-agey windmill great? To me this symbolizes the future . . . if we have the guts and willpower to transition to a more sustainable way of life. A way where we go back to our more densely-populated urbans centers, our Main Street stores owned by our neighbors, and our sense of community purpose while at the same time taking advantage of new technologies and ideas and art.

I want to wake up and smell the coffee . . . at places like Perk!

Remember Community Gardens?

Rhubarb

Dear Reader:

In recent posts I have strayed from my original plans for this blog–advocating “going local” in place of spending hard-earned dollars at big-box retail stores with questionable business ethics and negative impact on community economics.

One of my passionate causes a few years back was the attempt to create a community garden in my, er, planned neighborhood which I will nickname The Contrammunity. If you have been following Outside the Box for awhile, you will remember that the struggle ended in defeat . . . mostly because some members of The Contrammunity thought that a run-down, unusable tennis court was preferable to a garden in their neighborhood.

But who am I to say what is or isn’t more valuable? I gave up the fight, deciding that if a community garden stirred up so much controversy and bad feelings, it wasn’t anything I wanted to pursue further.

Anyway, I still have a soft spot in my heart for community gardens. In the right kind of neighborhood, a shared garden space can be an oasis, a gathering place, a teaching/learning tool for newbies and kids, and (I truly believe this) a positive selling point for real estate nearby (unlike a broken, unused, cracked tennis court, for example.)

Waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . for spring!

So when I read “If Every Community Had a Garden” in the Significato Journal this morning, my heart warmed. I was especially interested in the rainwater-catching system used for irrigation. Click to take a look at this short piece about a community garden started in Norway, Maine . . . incidentally, a town I lived in, worked in, owned a home in before moving further south. Norway is a wonderful, small, Maine town with a vibrant Main Street of small, locally-owned businesses including an impressive co-op store/space called the Fare-Share Co-op.

This video says it all!! Click Alan Day Community Garden Video. (Honestly, I’m watching this, and I can’t believe I moved away from this place!)

I don’t see myself ramping up the necessary energy to try to create a community garden again here The Contrammunity again. Sometimes you just have to admit you are living in the wrong place, make the best of your own backyard, and find a good co-op group and/or CSA farm–by looking at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) website.

Wild Plant with Old Leaves in Background

Spring is just around the corner, and I’m looking forward to getting new garden boxes set up, ordering seeds, and planting–just as soon as the snow melts and I’ve raked up the leaves I left moldering on the lawn over the winter.

What about you? Does your community have a shared-garden space? Do you have plans for spring planting? Drop me a line . . . Outside the Box.

A Capitol Night

Capitol Building

Dear Reader:

After a day acclimating ourselves to our neighborhood in Arlington, VA just across the Potomac from D.C., we hopped on the Metro yellow line and zipped over to L’Enfant Plaza, just a block over from the National Mall. Walking up Maryland Avenue toward the beautiful white dome of the U.S. Capitol, I spotted something familiar. Raised garden beds!

Raised beds in children's garden

Here was a children’s garden, sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration, General Services Administration, and the FAA Child Development Center, right in the heart of one of the biggest metropolitan cities in the world! After attending a conference about child development and learning how gardens benefit children, one of the GSA members organized the creation of this experiential garden for kids. The other groups came on board, and the garden was created in 2010–a positive example of how government entities CAN work together for the common good. Click HERE to read about the project.

Sign at the children's garden

A few steps further, still buzzing from my exciting find, I saw more garden boxes filled with flowers, veggies, and herbs. The uniquely-shaped beds were alive with birds and insects in the warm, late-afternoon air.

Garden in the Heart of D.C.

Out came my camera again . . .

Community garden, perhaps?

Check out this basil . . .

Basils

. . . summer squash?

Some sort of squash plant

I almost dropped my camera when I saw this . . . a compost bin steps from the National Mall.

Compost bin!

Okay, if we can have a real veggie garden complete with compost bins right in the middle of Washington D.C., can’t we plant community gardens in every neighborhood, housing development, condo association, and hamlet in the U.S.A.? They don’t take alot of room, they beautify the neighborhood, they are wonderful tools for children’s education and development, and the produce is nutritional and tasty.

My family, though used to my rantings about community gardening and all things composty, were anxious to view the more usual tourist sights, so on we went to the Capitol Building.

Inspiring architecture

How did they build these things without large cranes and hydrolics and electric nail guns?

Here was my thought as I stood at the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building, awed by the architecture and sense of history that is seeped into the place: If every American had a chance to come to D.C., to feel the power and beauty and logic of what our founders were able to accomplish and build, we would all be inspired to be better citizens and do our best to make our country and world a better place.

(Yes, I was teary-eyed. Couldn’t help it. Imagine I’ll be a puddle of mush by the time I leave this place at the end of the summer.)

The White House

From the Capitol, we headed down Pennsylvania Avenue past the Canadian Embassy, the Newseum, the National Archives and then up into Penn Quarter with all its restaurants and hotels and twenty-somethings out for a night on the town. We walked past the Shakespeare Theatre, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the American Craft Museum, and then across the 15th St. and up around Lafayette Park to view the White House and have our picture taken.

Shaky night picture of Washington Monument

By then, dusk had turned to dark and the fireflies were out in the grassy area in front of the White House. We headed down toward the Mall where the Washington Monument was all lit up–huge, and pointy in the evening sky. Senses overloaded and feet beginning to hurt, we trekked back to L’Enfant and the Metro. Twenty minutes later, we were in Arlington safe and sound.

All in all, we had a capital Capitol night. Can’t wait to explore some more!

We Cambridged, We Saw, and We Concord

For several years now I have wanted to visit Cambridge, Massachusetts. Why Cambridge, you ask? Sometime just before junior high school, I had gone through my parents’ collection of books stored on shelves in the basement and came across a paperback edition of Erich Segal’s book, LOVE STORY. I read it, understanding not much except that she was a young girl who dies. What kind of writer, I wondered, kills off the heroine like that? Stupid book, I thought. I’d go back to my ANN OF GREEN GABLES, thank you very much.

(In eighth grade my teacher gave me a copy of WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, and I realized that heroes die in some books so I’d better get used to it. Two years later I read GONE WITH THE WIND and discovered that even epic love stories can have tragic endings. Don’t even get me started on ANNA KARENINA.)

Sunny courtyard seen through an archway

Anyway, LOVE STORY was my first literary journey to Harvard and Radcliffe, The Coop, Widener Library, and rowing on the Charles River. After that, I had a fascination with Harvard. For me it has been this sort of ideal–as if all that history and learning and writing and lecturing and studying has bonded into the brick and stone structures, permeated the leaves of the trees in Harvard Yard, seeped into the water of the river down which preppy boys skim in long, thin boats. If only I could get there, I fantasized, perhaps some of that intellectual wondrousness (think Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Adams, Al Gore, Matt Damon . . .) would rub off on me.

Plus it just sounded like a really cool, historical, happening place to visit.

So, last weekend when my friend, Donna, invited me to attend her reunion at Lesley University, a small liberal arts college right next door to Harvard, I jumped at the opportunity.

This is Lesley University’s Admissions building.

The entire campus is housed in these beautiful, renovated, Victorian-era houses snuggled up together on tree-shaded streets just off Massachusetts Avenue. If you Google Map it, look for Wendell Street.

Here I am on the steps of the dormitory hall where we stayed. The three-story house was tall and narrow with five or six rooms on each floor. A wooden staircase wound up from the front entrance hall to the two upper stories. Pretty posh living quarters for undergraduates, I thought.

The Coop Bookstore and Cafe

Refreshed and revived, we didn’t stay in our room for long–just about enough time to throw our bags on the bed and eat a brownie from the fabulous table of food downstairs in the common room. Donna gave me a tour of Lesley and then showed me where she used to cut through Harvard to get to stores and whatnot.

Street performer on a unicycle playing the bagpipes in a kilt

Sure enough, we came out near Harvard Square where you can catch the T, watch street performers, browse for books in The Coop, have coffee at one of the many, many coffee shops, and window-shop for shoes that cost more than I spend on groceries for a month.

Cambridge River Festival

Donna and I were lucky to be here the same weekend as the Cambridge River Festival, a celebration of the arts set up along the Charles. About 2 pm, we slipped into a tent to enjoy a presentation of storytelling by some very talented local teenagers, viewed some performance art (guy dressed up like a giant, slightly creepy, white angel) and then went back to Harvard Square in search of coffee at The Coop.

Once we’d had our fill of mocha lattes and book browsing, we walked around the city for a few more hours enjoying the pretty, landscaped dooryards, quaint neighborhoods, campus buildings, and shop windows. Cambridge really is a walkable city, the kind of place New Urbanists claim we most enjoy living in.

Roses gracing the sidewalk

What are the priciples of New Urbanism?
1. Walkability
2. Connectivity
3. Mixed use and diversity
4. Mixed housing
5. Quality architecture and Urban Design
6. Traditional neighborhood structure
7. Increased density
8. Green transportation
9. Sustainability
10.Quality of life

Of course, Cambridge is an OLD urban model. It is the kind of place the New Urbanists look to for inspiration. Cambridge has the elelments we’ve been missing in all our unsustainable suburbs and exurban housing developments.

Here, you can shop, eat, learn, sleep, exercise, work and play all in the same place without having to get into a car. You can walk or bike or ride the T or catch a bus. The architecture is stunning. The quality of life is fantastic–all those institutions of learning, the emphasis on culture and the arts, the plethora of caffeinated beverages. I felt energized just being there for one weekend. Imagine living somewhere even a little bit like that.

Sign at the Farmer's Market

On Sunday morning, Donna and I even discovered a farmer’s market in Charles Square. We bought bread, sampled cheesecake, perused the greens, and admired the booths. I watched people buying bags of veggies, tubs of goat cheese and long sticks of baguettes and envied them their local lunch.

Donna at the Farmer's Market

We ate a small lunch at an outside table in front of a coffee shop and headed back to Harvard for more sightseeing. I was determined to see Widener Library before we left Cambridge, and Donna wanted to find a church she had attended a few times when she was at Lesley.

Ironically, you CAN park your car at Harvard Yard . . . or pretty close to it, anyway. When we had arrived at Lesley the day before, we were given a pass to park at Harvard’s underground Oxford Street parking lot. Now we stopped to see the buildings around Harvard Yard on our way back to the garage.

Widener Library

Widener Library was closed on Sunday morning, but was still impressive in its huge massiveness. The thought of all those books housed in such a beautiful structure makes me giddy!

Memorial Church

We found Memorial Church, and snapped a few pictures. It was built in 1932 as a memorial to those who had died in World War I and to serve as Harvard’s church.

Pretty grounds at Harvard University

The day was getting late, and so with reluctance we found the parking garage and said farewell to Cambridge. Heading home, we decided to swing through Concord–home to some pretty famous writers back in the day. We drove past Thoreau’s Walden Pond. A little ways down the road was something even more remarkable and heartwarming . . . a community garden!

Community garden just outside Concord

Here where a few of our country’s great writers–Thoreau, Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nat Hawthorne–penned some pretty amazing American Literature, modern Concordians not only enjoy reading but also like growing their own food. According to the official Concord, MA website, “Concord has long supported community gardens and in 2010 has three community gardens on town land with over 100 plots. The burgeoning interest in gardening and local food production has ensured that two of the three gardens are subscribed to capacity, though there is limited turnover from year to year. East Quarter Farm Gardens, near Ripley School, was established in 2009 and still has plots available.”

Three community gardens on public land! Over one hundred plots! Two are filled to capacity!

There in a quaint, old, respected, historical, classy community we find three community gardens, while here in my exurban subdivision carved out of old farmland we have none because some people don’t want to live next door to a garden. How sad–and stupid. When is my community going to wake up?

Emerson's House

Perhaps if I were as effective a writer as Emerson or Thoreau, I could convince my fellow community members to find a place for a communal garden space, to change the bylaws which allow cutting trees in order to put in a swimming pool but not for a sunny garden area, and to begin changing our subdivision from a car-centric, single-use, unsustainable, exurban backwater into a walkable, mixed-use, connected, sustainable, green community.

Cambridge house on side-street

Or maybe I just need to get out of Dodge for awhile.

Stay tuned in the next week or so as Outside the Box travels to Washington D.C.

Community Garden . . . Inside the Fence

Last year's garden beneath the trees

Last year's garden beneath the trees

Dear Reader:

Sometimes thinking outside the box gets you into the strangest places–in this case it got me fenced in. Let me explain.

I live in a subdivision. Okay, nobody here wants to call it that because it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter subdivision ala WEEDS (too many trees and dirt roads), but our “homeowners association” is 2000-houses big, is situated on the outskirts of town, and it is a good 35-60 minutes from any of the cities where most of our community members work. Every day, members of my community hop into their individual gasoline-powered vehicles and leave the community in order to travel to their place of employment. We have no restaurants, grocery stores, corner markets, coffee shops, bookstores or any other retail businesses within the borders of our incorporated development. We have to drive out of the community for food, clothing, furrniture, trash bags, tiolet paper, lattes, cigarettes, and everything else people can’t live without. Needless to say, there is no public transportation.

Our 1/4 to 1 acre lots are shaded by tall, half-dead white pines whose tendency to crash down during wind and ice storms can knock electricity out for days, but on this former productive farmland whose old stone walls stand testament to our community’s agricultural past, we cannot cuts trees in order to provide sunlight for backyard gardens. Tweaking the tree-cutting policy to make room for veggie gardens would take an act of the State of Maine legislature, or so one of the community trustees informed me at a Board meeting. However, the Board was willing to consider an alternate suggestion–the community garden.

I can work with that.

Community gardens provide space for food production, foster relationships among neighbors, encourage self-sufficiency, and give our kids a chance to learn gardening techniques. The American Community Garden Association provides guidelines and suggestions for groups just starting out on a communal agricultural venture. Click here to learn more.

Our first garden committee meeting was held this week, and we discussed possible locations. An unused tennis court seems perfect. It is 117 x 117 feet and surrounded by a tall fence–perfect for keeping out pesky deer that love to munch on tender vegetable seedlings. We will be asking the Board for permission to dig up the cracked court surface and to use community-owned loam to provide soil for the garden. Specifics have yet to be worked out such as size of lots, best-practices (i.e. rules), and whether or not we will make a driveway through the center of the garden area so that people can back their pickups to their plots, but community members are interested, echoing a trend across our country to pick up where Victory Gardens in the 1940’s left off.

When the First Family puts a backyard garden at the White House, we know something is changing out there in America. We are beginning to realize that in order to have a sustainable lifestyle, we need to bring food production back home, as in back of the home.

If towns and cities and subdivisions foster a spirit of self-sufficiency regarding food, then we are one step closer to weaning ourselves from big agriculture, big corporations, and big oil. We will provide a safety net for ourselves independent of big government. The spirit of freedom in a summer squash. Self-reliance in a sun-ripened tomato. Can it really be that simple?

A backyard or community garden is just one way to cut your reliance on multinational supermarket chains, food trucked thousands of miles, and genetically-modified vegetables. Other options are shopping at locally-owned grocery stores, frequenting local farm stands, and joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. More on these later. In the meantime, enjoy the warmer weather, the daffodils, and the sound of the “peepers” at dusk . . . outside the box.