“Gardening is a multi-component physical activity that includes aerobic, muscle strengthening and balance training elements and counts towards the weekly training recommendations.” This emerges from the Centers for Disease Control. Gardens also produce food, promote socialization, and support mental health. All of this – including flowers – happens in the community garden on the Woodside campus of Island Elderly Housing (IEH) in Oak Bluffs.
The Woodside Community Garden has 26 age-friendly raised beds where individual gardeners can grow plants of their choice. A flowerbed where everyone is asked to pick bouquets is in the middle of the garden. Common beds of strawberries and asparagus line the edge of the garden. Roses, blackberries and grapevines climb the 3-foot fence, which was originally built to protect against marauding herds of deer in this forest reserve. Outside the fence, trees donated by an IEH tenant, George Szilassy, dot the landscape and bear fruit that anyone can pick.
None of this happened overnight, but is the cumulative effect of decades of volunteering and generosity from the residents and staff of the IEH and the larger island community. Every generation of IEH gardeners leaves some traces of themselves in the garden.
The garden started out small – very small, with only a few lots – and was created through the efforts of garden designer Doris Gaffney, a wiry little woman with great energy and determination. “She started by getting high school interested in building the fence, shed, and toolbox in the garden,” said garden historian Lynn Thorp. “Doris drove all over the island and found donations for the garden everywhere. People loved their passion for building a community garden … and like a choir they gave and gave and gave everything they needed for garden orchestration. ”When Doris wasn’t laying out the community garden, she volunteered regularly to distribute mail in Windemere and could be seen every day at lunch in the café of the MV Hospital as “payment” for their morning work.
When Doris moved to Windemere herself, IEH residents Lynn and Bill Thorp entered. Bill built raised beds and Lynn did the installation of gravel paths to make moving around the garden safer. Lynn raised money for the gravel and did the tedious task of laying a canvas bed on which the gravel could be poured. Bill brought some serious vegetable growing experience to the garden, a knowledge he shared with less experienced gardeners. Bill grew up in western Nebraska, on his great-grandmother’s land, where horses plowed every year and a windmill watered a large one-acre vegetable garden.
Phyllis Dunne is now the garden coordinator. Phyllis is a photographer by profession and assigns garden beds and housework and is a great “scrounger” of anything that is needed to improve the garden. Under her leadership, truckloads of earth from Mahoney and Donaroma rolled in. Plants and garden tools were rounded up with community volunteers and IEH staff. Cape Cod Five was made to give both time and money, and staff came to clean the garden over a weekend. Scout troops and students are regular volunteers in the garden. Miller’s landscapers donated a sprinkler system and IEH board member Cole Powers rebuilt the fences, gates and posts.
One of Woodside’s most enthusiastic gardeners is Ilka List, a sculptor who exhibits at Tanya Augoustinos’ A Gallery. She finds the garden “a place of healing”. The growth in her two raised beds is what she calls the “eclectic mix, lettuce to gladiolus”. And she’s a jelly maker, recently cooking grapes harvested from Woodside vines.
Maureen Mullen came to Woodside Garden four years ago with a Master Gardener Certificate from the Chicago Botanical Garden. Maureen is a strict flower gardener and grows Russian sage, Veronica (speedwell) and liatris for “artistic expression”. She also grows catnip for its fragrant leaves and cute little flowers, but it’s a much sought-after special treat for the Woodside cats. Maureen says she comes to the garden for fellowship and because taking care of the plants gives her an emotional rush.
Contributing to the IEH is an island tradition that goes back almost half a century when founder Carol Lashnits successfully sought other winemakers for land to build her dream of renting apartments for the low-income elderly. Eleven 160-apartment buildings were built while Carol ran IEH, and Margaret Love donated her waterfront home in Vineyard Haven, which now contains five efficient apartments.
In view of today’s property valuations, the demand for similar property contributions now borders on unrealistic. But time, money and garden goods continue to flow into improving the community garden. Some of the many contributors were the Greenhouse of Martha’s Vineyard (aka COMSOG), the MV Agricultural Society, the Permanent Endowment, Santander and MV Banks, Beetlebung Tree Care, and the Vineyard Home Center.
Come in the garden
The strawberry beds, which are heavily overgrown with weeds, need attention, new plants, and volunteers to pull weeds. Loft beds need to be rehabilitated. Efforts to make the garden more accessible will continue. A mysterious woman promised plants. The anonymous Facebook contributor with the name “MVGardener” responded to the latest community garden photo series by photographer Paul Doughterty by offering to donate tomato and cucumber plants, basil and sunflowers for the next season. She even volunteered to help with planting.