The summer was rapidly drawing to a close for Sue Steadham, as she tended her plot in the community garden near Long Hill School in late August.
A teacher, Steadham was enjoying a warm afternoon gardening before her school year was set to start the next day.
She had only good things to say about the city-owned and -managed community garden that she’s been a part of for five years.
“This is phenomenal,” she said. “I appreciate the support from the city. I live in town and have a small garden. A lot of Shelton is shady.
“I do sun vegetables here,” Steadham said. “I like that I can get different varieties of tomatoes. I learn a lot from other gardeners.”
It’s the sense of community that’s important, said Teresa Gallagher, the city’s conservation agent and Community Gardens Committee chairman.
Gallagher tends two plots at the Long Hill garden, where she serves as a “captain.”
“It’s a community garden,” she said. “Everybody has to help out. Everybody gets to know everybody.”
The city owns two community gardens — the site off Long Hill and another off Soundview Avenue.
The Long Hill garden has been going for five years and the other for four years. There are 30 plots at each location, measuring 20 feet by 20 feet, and 10 feet by 20 feet.
“Every year it gets a little better,” Gallagher said, in terms of upkeep and presentation.
The plots often reflect the backgrounds of the gardeners, she said.
A family from India plants a type of spinach that originates in their native county, gardeners from the American South plant okra, and others grow tomatillos — green fruits from Mexico that are used to make salsa verde.
In mid-August, tomatoes are ripening in the sun, and the gardens are full of butternut squash, amaranth, kale and sunflowers, which attract goldfinches that spread the seeds around, Gallagher said.
She said she’s learned a lot about growing vegetables from the community garden experience. She’s rotating her crops, and cucumbers are growing atop the remains of spinach and rutabaga.
“I’ve planted in March,” Gallagher said. Garlic is planted in October, and some vegetables can be harvested during the winter.
She’s calculated that she grows about $1,000 worth of produce each year. “It’s very, very fresh,” she said.
‘A lot of work’
Because of the amount of work it takes to maintain a garden plot, about 75% of new gardeners drop out of the community gardens.
“It’s a lot of work. The gardeners do just about everything,” Gallagher said. This includes installing fencing the city supplies, putting down the wood chips, hooking up hoses and mowing around the perimeter.
“Every plot holder is responsible for his or her plot and the aisle that abuts it,” she said. “These plots are a privilege.”
There are a few work parties scheduled each year when people are required to help out.
She said she’s learned that some community gardens in other towns “can get tacky looking,” and the Shelton garden captains try not to let that happen.
“We want it to look nice for the neighborhood,” she said. “This is public open space.”
The management urges people to harvest their crops so there’s no dead vegetation lying around, and when the rules aren’t adhered to, some people are asked to leave.
Shelton residents had pleaded for community gardens for years before they opened, Gallagher said, and Mayor Mark Lauretti responded to their wishes and invited residents to form a committee to choose locations and organize the gardens.
Residents have to put their names on a waiting list in order to receive a garden plot. Existing gardeners can re-register in January and February, and the remaining plots are assigned to people on the waiting list in March and April.
Sharna Kozak, a captain at both gardens, contacts those on the waiting list who have been accepted. Kozak handles the financial aspects of the gardens and acts as a liaison with the city.
Those on the waiting list usually receive a plot within a year, Gallagher said, and more spots are usually available at the Soundview Avenue garden.
That garden gets its water from tanks that fire department members fill, while the Long Hill site uses city water.
The Soundview garden “doesn’t dry out as much,” Gallagher said, while the Long Hill spot dries out more quickly, because it’s more exposed to wind and has sandy soil.
Sam Cicalo, a gardener at the Long Hill site, was harvesting tomatoes, butternut squash, peppers and snap peas under a late summer sun and was generously handing out surplus vegetables.
“I’m retired,” Cicalo said. “I like coming out here and growing vegetables. It’s fun. It keeps me busy.”
Plots cost $20 and half plots $10 per season. Those interested in putting their names on the waiting list may visit sheltonconservaton.org/recreation/gardening or call 203-924-1555, ext. 1315.