By Jillian Risberg
The Denville Community Gardens all started back in 1972 with 17 members and a piece of land that environmentalist, Lorraine Caruso talked the town into letting them use.
Now they are at capacity with 110 families.
“If I had another 15/20 plots I could probably easily assign them to people,” says Bob Grant, the Denville garden administrator. As the years have gone by the gardens have kind of grown organically in that the 17 people were able to carve out virtually as much land as they wanted.”
They started off hauling water by the bucket from the river.
“Then eventually a guy named Dennis Mahoney, who was the administrator of the garden (at the time) got some volunteers and they put in a water system and we pump water out of the river,” the gardener says.
It goes through a complicated system of piping so everybody with a reasonably sized hose can reach a faucet and water their gardens.
“The two things you need for a garden are water and land,” Grant says. “The gardeners were able to supply that. A couple of years ago we expanded the water system and put in seven or eight new double facets to make it easier for people to get to the water.”
According to Grant, they have a diverse community of gardeners.
“They grow some epic crops, we have an abundance of tomatoes and corn, which wasn’t popular 10 years ago, is getting more popular. Corn is tough to grow.”
There’s also several different kinds of lettuce; jalapeños, bell peppers, banana peppers, all different varieties of peppers and beans – green beans, pole beans, lima beans.
“I may be the only one in the gardens that grows lima beans, but I really love fresh limas, which may sound a little bit odd,” Grant says. “But then again I’m a community gardener so I’ve got a right to be little bit odd.”
Over the years there have been a few challenges.
“In 2011 we had Hurricane Irene, which flooded out the lower two-thirds of the garden,” Grant says. “We managed to rescue a pump and lawn mower before the waters came up high enough. We didn’t lose anything in particular but there was a lot of damage done with that much water on the gardens.”
The demographic of the community gardener tends to be older.
“We have a number of retired people but they’re the ones with the most time,” he says. “We also have some young families with kids. As far as the type of people, it ranges all over the lot. We have craftsman and building trades people, professionals, lawyers — at least three maybe four PHDs in various disciplines, a retired urologist.”
According to Grant, the common thread among all these gardeners with different backgrounds is controlling their food source.
“We have banned herbicides because there’s strong evidence that it’s carcinogenic, we don’t want roundup use,” he says. “We discourage the use of pesticides but sometimes potato beetles get to the point where they’re gonna destroy your entire crop so we allow limited use of that but we urge people to be very careful.”
And the garden administrator says they try to keep the whole atmosphere friendly and cooperative.
“It’s a pretty nice place to be really,” he says. “I believe we are the lowest priced community garden in the state. We charge $10 a season. I want to have enough money to replace the pump if we need to and pay ancillary expenses as they arise.”
There’s never a bad day at the garden.
For John Huebner, volunteering there for the past 10 years has been grounding.
“It’s very satisfying, gives you a strong sense of connection with nature,” Huebner says. “But also you’re surrounded with other gardeners and the culture of the gardeners from what I’ve seen are very free with their knowledge. They’re always happy to help you benefit from their experience without being pushy.”
He grows many flowers in his vegetable garden.
“I also grow beets, zucchini, a lot of garlic every year because that breaks up the growing season. I have about a third of the garden given over to garlic,” says the Cedar Lake resident. “It’s about 150 heads. “Mostly I give it away; I love garlic but not that much.”
This allows him to forget about that third in the spring and have something to work with in July when everything else is established and producing.
“Now I have a fresh patch that I can plant out with other things,” he says.
And the model maker doesn’t have to deal with the whole May/June gardening craziness.
The farmed five-acre site next to the Denville Public Library has 15×20 plots.
For most people the goal is to grow their own crops. It’s happening in cities all over – community gardens are converting unused spaces into amazing green places.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than to slice up a plate of tomatoes in front of your friends and family,” Grant says, adding he loves the part where he gets to tell them that he grew ‘em.
Huebner echoes that sentiment, as several longtime gardeners have told him the joy of gardening is giving it away.
“It’s true; it’s deeply satisfying to grow something and then give people the bounty, so to speak,” he says.
But you’ve got to be willing to put in the time and effort. Grant says a common trait among the gardeners is commitment.
“You see the same people there at the same time every day,” he says. “The secret is to not let it get so far ahead of you that you’ve got three or four days of hard work to catch up.”
And it’s not the easiest hobby in the world, according to Grant.
“Particularly in the late spring, early summer right around now,” he says. “You get days of rain and can’t get to the garden. And then you come back and the weeds have sprouted all over the place so you gotta keep up with the weeds, watch out for the potato beetles and bean beetles.”
Grant grows beefsteak, Big Boy and other tomatoes every year, then takes a dozen of them to his house in Maine.
“I’ll put them in an open box, which I carry on the ferry boat over to the island just to show off,” the gardener says. “Maine doesn’t grow the kind of tomatoes that New Jersey does.”
Some local groups are getting to enjoy the fruits of the garden.
“We have given a plot to the Denville Library Children’s book section,” Grant says. “The supervisor of children’s books supervises this garden and they’re doing a good job.”
And an Eagle Scout project included installing eight raised beds to accommodate those with disabilities and bending issues so they are also able to garden.
“I don’t know of any other community garden that’s got that so we’re doing some unusual things,” Grant says.
According to the gardener, everyone supplies their own and some even have grow lights in the basement to get a head start on tomato seedlings, beans and more.
“One guy grew corn which he just transplanted,” Grant says. “A lot of people buy part of their crop from the local nurseries and plant the rest of it from seed.”
The water is on a timer so they don’t want to keep the pump on all day, every day.
“We’ve got a switch up in the bulletin board which allows individual gardeners to turn the water on if it’s not on when they get there,” the administrator says.
The gardeners can choose peak hours that work best for them — 6 to 8 in the morning, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., 1 to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to dusk.
“That’s plenty of time for people with varying schedules,” Grant says.
He’s been a garden administrator for 10 years, a gardener for 25 — and he always comes back for more.
“My favorite time at the garden is when I got a couple of chairs and a table set up under a tree about a third of the way down the driveway and people come along and we chat for a bit,” Grant says. “Just getting to know a wide swath of people in the community.”
Others often walk through and say they never knew this (the garden) existed.
“Cause it’s not real visible on Diamond Spring Road,” the administrator says. “Yet it’s not Denville’s best kept secret because I get a lot of requests for plots that I can’t fill.”
Paul Dean and his wife were motivated to get involved with the garden because their property in Lake Arrowhead is bathed in shade, not conducive to growing much of anything.
“We’re just overwhelmed with giant oak trees,” Dean says. “We’ve been in Denville for 29 years and when we first moved here we tried a couple of times but we didn’t get enough sun so I put in to get a plot over there.”
They don’t have one of the largest gardens but through the years have donated many tomatoes, green beans and assorted vegetables to St. Peter’s Orphanage in town.
“We (still) have enough for ourselves, matter of fact at times we have too much,” Dean says. “We give our neighbors some of the lettuce and arugula that we grow, and then our daughter gets a bunch and we freeze a bunch.”
They also grow lima beans, black beans, peppers and all kinds of herbs.
As retirees, he says they have more time now to dedicate to the garden and enjoy getting outside.
“To soak in some sun and take care of the stuff that we’re growing and seeing it come to fruition,” Dean says. “It’s just a fun thing to do.”