Planting Bubble Gum

By Emily Gold / September / October 1999
November 7th, 2007
Amid the gray city streets of south Providence is a patch of green, a children's garden where kids munch on peppermint leaves, pick organic apples, and dunk their hands in boxes of slimy worms. Just across the street, surrounded by blocks of triple-deckers, is a garden where adults can grow their own food, one of fourteen such plots around the South Side where residents can gather and talk while tending such crops as hot peppers, Thai basil, and Asian long beans.

The gardens are run by the Southside Community Land Trust, which this summer welcomed Brown students willing to chip in. In the Howard Swearer Memorial Children's Garden, Kirsten Tobey '00 taught city kids how to plant, cultivate, and harvest food, while Hallie Chertok '00, who will graduate in December, was coordinator of the fourteen community gardens. With plots rented out to about 200 families at a cost of fifteen dollars each, the gardens have transformed vacant city lots into village spaces. "We provide the beginning pieces," says Chertok, who, like Tobey, is a development-studies concentrator. "We want the gardens to work for the community."

Tobey planted a children's garden that by the end of the summer was bursting with ripe vegetables, fresh flowers, and energetic children. One section is a pizza-pie-shaped plot divided into triangular "slices" of basil, oregano, tomatoes, peppers, and garlic. Tobey also built a "sense garden," where children can touch fuzzy leaves, nibble orange- flavored flowers, gaze at black-eyed Susans, and smell a variety of herbs. (Peppermint is a favorite, Tobey says: "They call it the bubble-gum plant.") Another feature is the "Reese's Peanut Butter Cup garden," where peanuts grow in a bed of cocoa mulch.

The goal, Tobey says, is to help children understand that food comes from the earth, not the supermarket. "When they first arrive," she says, "they think food comes from plastic bottles. Most of these kids don't eat a lot of fresh foods, don't eat salad every day. That removes them even one step further from the source of their food."

Chertok's goal, on the other hand, is to use gardening to bring neighbors together and to tighten community bonds. During her summer job, which she also held during the summer of 1998 and the 1998-1999 academic year, she held monthly meetings with gardeners - most of whom are Southeast Asian. She also planned a pot-luck dinner and started her own garden. "It's not for us to decide that 'this is what we mean by community garden,'" she says. "There needs to be someone who's out there listening to the gardeners." Thanks to Chertok, when gardeners asked for a six-foot chain-link fence instead of the proposed five-foot fence, the land trust obliged.

Both students welcomed the chance to meet Providence residents who live beyond the East Side. "This is just an elite little hill we live on," Tobey says. "There's a whole other world across the Point Street bridge."

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Related Issue
September / October 1999