That’s a Mighty Fine Garden, Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter!

veg1Just a few blocks from Main Street in Nashua is the new home of the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter (NSKS), which serves people who need a meal or a safe place to sleep. This corner building on E Pearl and Quincy St doesn’t have a lot of outdoor green space, but by utilizing what is there, the NSK now has flourishing raised beds gardens that are teeming with fresh vegetables and herbs. I was fortunate to be able to meet with Carol Weeks, Community Outreach Manager at the NSKS, to learn about how this project came to fruition in just six months.

Having a garden at the NSKS was something that Director Lisa Christie had been envisioning, and after reading an article in the Boston Globe about Green City Growers, an urban gardening organization based out of Cambridge, MA, they contacted the non-profit and specifically Jessie Banhazl, about starting gardens at the NSKS. They started the planning process in November of 2014, and the gardens were built and planted by June 5, 2015. The area itself is not substantial, and merely the space between the building to the city sidewalk. But now, instead of dirt and gravel, this modest area holds 8 raised garden beds. Four of the beds are 4 by 8 feet and 4 others are a whopping 4 by 12 feet. You can pack of lot of growing into that square footage, and the NSKS has done just that!

The food grown in the garden is used in meals at the soup kitchen, such as cherry tomatoes on salads and herbs in sauces. Carol noted that the day before my visit, she could smell the fresh basil that kitchen manager Shane was simmering in sauce from the kitchen, and all the way to her office on a different floor! Shane should have plenty of food to work with from the garden, as it is teeming with all kinds of useful vegetables: rows of neatly trellised sungold and jet star tomatoes, bush beans, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, sweet potatoes, summer squash, just to name a few, and culinary herbs such as basil, rosemary and parsley.

All of the labor to build the gardens was donated by volunteers including a local team of Fidelity employees. The soil for the garden beds was donated by the well-known local landscaping business Morin’s. NSKS has also received monetary gifts from the Nashua Garden Club, the Hollis Garden Club, and a grant from the City of Nashua CBGB grants. These donations enabled them to purchase supplies to build the garden beds, which are made from douglas fir.

The height of the raised beds is quite high so the garden is easy to maintain without much bending over, and it also keeps plants neatly off the ground. Carol said the height of the beds was a bit deceiving, since they are not filled entirely with soil. She had learned from an article in Organic Gardening magazine about a technique using milk crates. Inside of the raised beds, there is a bottom layer of overturned milk crates, and over that, a layer of wire mesh, then landscape fabric, and finally a dirt/compost blend. This allows the garden to be quite tall without needing to buy so much soil…genius! This also squelches any worry about contaminated soil beneath the garden, since the soil growing your vegetables will never come into contact with the soil on the ground. The vegetables in the garden are neatly mulched with bark mulch, which deters the growth of weeds (I can attest that the garden is completely weed free!) and helps to keep moisture in the soil instead of evaporating into the air.

The maintenance of the garden is fairly loose as far as NSKS staff goes, but one dedicated volunteer, Dennis, volunteers numerous days a week to maintain the garden. During my tour of the garden, Carol noted that the basil, which had been picked the night before, was harvested by “the kids”. Other than the obvious food source, education is part of the reason to maintain a garden, and the lessons are tangible.

Besides the buy-in from NSKS employees and clients, working with Jessie of Green City Growers has been a key to the garden’s success, and have hired her on as a consultant for the garden for two years. This will enable the NSKS to have guidance throughout the seasons, which will help them to maintain the garden successfully in the following years. Already the consulting has been a huge help. When the bean plants were showing signs of disease, Carol simply a took a photo of what the beans looked like and Jessie came up with an organic solution of a baking soda, milk and water spray, which helped to control the common bacterial disease. Another challenge noted has been proper pollination, though I did see several bees while visiting! As for future projects, Carol mentioned planting crops for fall harvest and planting garlic, which is harvested the following summer.

Even though pilfering of vegetables or vandalism to the garden was a concern while setting up the garden, it has happily not been an issue for the NSKS gardens. There are signs around the garden explaining what the garden is for, and asking folks to please refrain from harvesting the vegetables. Carol said that the public has been very respectful of the gardens. When I was standing outside at the gardens for about a half hour, no less than 3 people walking by commented on how lovely they were and asked questions about the project, which the staff and volunteers gladly showed off. Of course, gardens also provide great fodder for conversation, and most everyone appreciates the added green space in the landscape!

Article and photography by Holly Klump, GCCG Board Member/Volunteer

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