Victory Garden At Fairfield Hills— A Healthy Community Project Takes Root

Victory Garden At Fairfield Hills—

A Healthy Community Project Takes Root

By Shannon Hicks

After a few false starts, Harvey Pessin and Lee Paulsen are nearly ready to break ground for a garden that will be supported by the community. Its harvests will benefit FAITH Food Pantry and other locations that help provide food to residents who cannot afford to buy all of their groceries.

The Newtown Parks & Recreation Commission voted on Tuesday night to provide resources and support the mission of Mr Pessin, a Main Street resident and co-owner with his wife, Brid Craddock, of Heirloom Gardens, and Ms Paulsen, a co-chair of FAITH Food Pantry, who want to create the garden.

The project has been named, at least temporarily, The Victory Garden: supporting FAITH Food Pantry and the needy. Parks & Rec has given The Victory Garden at least an acre of land to the immediate northeast of the old tennis courts at Fairfield Hills, which can be reached from Keating Farms Road and turning into what used to be the main entrance for the campus. The garden will be approximately 80 feet wide by 170 feet long.

There is plenty of parking available. The old tennis courts, Mr Pessin said this week, will allow the placement of picnic tables and encourage socializing and gatherings for the gardeners.

“Parks & Rec is giving us a beautiful piece of land,” Mr Pessin said on April 12. “We’ve been promised water, fencing, sod cutting. The space is open and flat and perfect. All of this is everything I could have hoped for.

“It is perfect,” he repeated, “just perfect.”

Thanks to Parks & Rec’s backing, Mr Pessin is more encouraged now than he has been for about a month, when initial location plans for the garden began falling apart.

Mr Pessin and Mrs Paulsen had been hoping to establish what was initially called The Garden for FAITH in Sandy Hook. But the logistics were not working out.

In making the rounds in recent weeks to meet with town officials and residents who might be able to help him with the garden, Mr Pessin met with First Selectman Pat Llodra. She kept Mr Pessin’s idea in mind, and passed it along to Parks & Rec Director Amy Mangold.

Meanwhile, Ms Mangold had made it known in the past the she would love to establish a community garden in town.

“It was interesting how we connected,” Ms Mangold said this week of being introduced to Mr Pessin and his idea. “I had mentioned in one of my monthly reports to Pat Llodra that I was interested in pursuing any type of community garden, and [Harvey Pessin] had been in touch with [the First Selectman], so she connected the two of us together.”

On April 12, Mr Pessin appeared before the Parks & Rec Commission to tell them about his wish.

The idea for the garden was rooted in the recession, Mr Pessin said.

“This actually started a few years ago,” he told the commission. “We were having a recession and the end of the world was coming, or so everyone told us. I told [my wife] we were going to have to start growing our own food. We ended up growing a huge amount of vegetable plants.”

In the spring of 2009, said Mr Pessin, “MSNBC announced that the recession was over. We contacted Lee Paulsen and gave her dozens of potted plants, which she then gave to her clients.”

“They loved it,” Mrs Paulsen said of the gift of vegetable plants she and her fellow FAITH volunteers were able to forward to clients of the Sandy Hook based food pantry. “It gave them something to grow for themselves, and for kids to watch this is just wonderful.”

This past winter Mr Pessin learned of The Judea Gardeners. Based in Washington (Conn.), Judea Garden is, according to its organizers, “a true community garden where volunteers till the toil to feed their neighbors.” In its inaugural year The Judea Garden produced more than half a ton of produce which was then given to more than 150 families in Washington, Roxbury ,and New Milford.

This past January Mr Pessin was able to meet with Denise Arturi, the master gardener who was in charge of the implementation of the Washington garden. She shared information, everything from what to grow and who to enlist for help to sources for possible grants.

While FAITH Food Pantry serves approximately 100 residents each month, its records show it helped more than 2,000 families last year. The pantry is exclusively for the use of Newtown residents. Most of its donations are canned, dried, or frozen food.

“They have found a delicate balance to keep food barely on the shelves for everyone,” Mr Pessin told the Parks & Rec Commission. “They don’t have a lot of fresh food, either.”

“It would be so nice to get fresh food in there,” Parks & Rec Commission member PJ Yochum said during Tuesday’s discussion. “Obesity is such a problem in this country. It will be good to help them, with healthy food.”

The garden, Mr Pessin was careful to point out after his successful presentation to the commission, will be a Parks & Rec project.

Something For Everyone

“There is a fine distinction between a community garden and a garden supported by a community,” Mr Pessin said this week. “What we are doing is offering the community an opportunity to do some gardening, with all of the fruits and vegetables that come from that garden to be given to FAITH Food Pantry and Newtown Social Services.

“Everyone who participates will get something out of this garden,” he said. “Whether they do this because they want to help others, or because they enjoy gardening, or because they can combine those two wishes, there will be many benefits for those who volunteer to take care of a row.”

In answer to a question from Parks & Rec Commission Chairman Ed Marks, Mr Pessin said there were very few challenges to establish the garden, especially now that the location has been decided upon.

“There really aren’t any,” added Assistant Director of Parks Carl Samuelson, who has promised the use of some Parks & Rec machinery to help with fencing and sod cutting.

“I’m a big fan of doing big things with little dollars to benefit Newtown,” Mr Marks said before the group took its vote. “This is another project, like the skate park [at Dickinson Park], that will benefit so many people in Newtown.

“Clearly, I think this is a home run,” Mr Marks added.

While the garden will come under the umbrella of Parks & Rec, its location at Fairfield Hills means the project also needs approval from Fairfield Hills Authority. FHA Chairman John Reed had also heard of the wish to establish a garden by Mr Pessin and Mrs Paulsen, and he mentioned the pair to Ms Mangold.

On Wednesday, April 13, Ms Mangold was told by Mr Reed that while FHA does not have its next meeting until April 22, “he has spoken to the individual members of the authority, and all of their feedback is positive,” Ms Mangold said.

“They will take official action at their meeting, but he feels the concept is very well received,” she added.

“I also received signed approval from George Benson [Newtown Director of Planning & Land Use], and from Pat Llodra as well,” she said.

“I looked up the meaning of a community garden, by The American Community Garden Association, and they say a community garden is a piece of land gardened by a group of people. I think the idea is usually that people will buy into a piece of land and harvest what they can from it. What is important here is that ours is not commercial in nature,” Ms Mangold stressed.

Residents will not be purchasing land, nor collecting all of the food harvested from their work in The Victory Garden.

“It’s a Victory garden, I think in Harvey’s mind, both in the sense of what was done during World War II with people working together for the benefit of others as well as a victory in bringing this project to fruition,” she added. “I think that’s a fantastic concept. It’s a service to the residents, and it’s a very good one.”

Ms Mangold is also happy that the garden will bring reflect one a core mission of her department.

“Not only will this be a service to the people who will benefit from the garden, it will also benefit from the mission and ideas of a Parks and Rec department,” she said. “We want to be thinking about increasing physical activity, promoting healthy activities, building positive neighborhoods, enhancing open spaces. It really dovetails with the visions of a Parks and Rec agency.

“Something I’ve been keeping in mind, something I read recently, is: ‘We need to create more nature and green spaces. Gardens are healthy communities,’” she said.

Establishing The Garden

Once the sod is cut and the fencing is installed, the garden will really begin to take shape. Plants and soil will be free of chemicals. Mr Pessin is planning a garden that will be free of pesticides and herbicides.

Composting will also be a part of the project.

“We’re going to compost everything,” Mr Pessin said. “Nothing will leave the site.”

The problem of deer in the area will be addressed, said Mr Samuelson, with fencing the town already owns.

“Our input is pretty minimal,” Mr Samuelson explained. “We’re going in to clear the land, cut the sod. It’s not going to be a big project. Probably two guys, one day, and we’ll be done,” he said.

Gardeners will be responsible for what they grow. Mr Pessin is organizing what will be grown in each row, and coordinating the efforts of putting together the garden.

“I’m not telling people what to grow, or how to grow it,” he said. “Everyone will be responsible for their own plants, and their cultivation. I am just telling everyone that everything they grow will go to the needy.”

Mr Pessin is, however, encouraging people to work in small teams.

“In August, more than any other time, people are going to be going away. People go on vacations, and you can’t garden when you’re away,” he said. “So people will need to work as teams to make sure their plants are cared for every week.

“Also,” he continued, “with a team you have back-up, and a group focus.”

While there will not be a competition within The Victory Garden, Mr Pessin expects there will nevertheless be a bit of rivalry within its fences.

“Everyone, I hope, will be a little bit competitive,” he said. “I want everyone to look at their neighbors’ rows and say ‘Mine can look better than that.’ We want gentle competition between the teams.”

Gentle competition might help produce a larger harvest.

Rows will be available for adoption, with groups and families who sign up for a row or two responsible for the planting and care of anything that goes into that row. The project, says Mr Pessin, is perfect for scouts, church groups, friends, clubs, and others.

“We have already heard from the ladies at the [Booth] library. They’re ready to start work as soon as they can,” he said.

Mr Pessin hopes to put seeds into the ground by May 15.

Word of mouth has also begun spreading the idea of the garden, and Mrs Paulsen and FAITH Food Pantry co-chair Nancy Taylor have already heard from people who want in from the ground up. Financial donations will help the garden’s organizers cover the cost of everything from organic garden soil and hand tools to blueberry bushes that will be planted outside the perimeter of the garden in order to help entice deer to stay out of the garden. Full-size deer fencing and a proper garden gate are also in the plans, but need to be covered by donations.

“Nancy and I are already receiving donations, and thank you notes are going out,” Mrs Paulsen said during a recent meeting with Ms Craddock and Mr Pessin. Anyone who would like to donate to the garden can send a check to The Victory Garden for FAITH c/o Lee Paulsen, 119 Boggs Hill Road, Newtown CT 06470.

Last week Harvey Pessin took Lee Paulsen to the garden’s future location. He did not tell her where they were going in advance. He just said he had some ideas and wanted to go for a ride.

“We got out of my truck and started walking around,” he told the Parks & Rec Commission Tuesday night. “We stopped at one point and I said ‘What do you think?’ She said ‘Of what?’ I told her ‘You’re looking at your new garden.’

“The smile on her face said it all,” Mr Pessin said.

“It’s unbelievable,” Mrs Paulsen said on Wednesday. “The site is just perfect.

A website for the garden has been set up at www.FoodPantryGarden.org, where Mr Pessin hopes those already interested will begin blogging and sharing their thoughts. Anyone interested in learning more about the garden, or who would like to adopt a row, is encouraged to contact Harvey Pessin at 203-241-0301 or harve9@yahoo.com.