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A food pantry garden grows in South Hadley: Neighbors Helping Neighbors feed the hungry

  • Volunteers like Will Schenker, 15, of South Hadley, spread the vegetables out on turkey wire and wash them before packing them into boxes to take to the food pantry.<br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Volunteers like Will Schenker, 15, of South Hadley, spread the vegetables out on turkey wire and wash them before packing them into boxes to take to the food pantry.


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  • Len Brouillette of South Hadley washes radishes at rhe Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.  <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Len Brouillette of South Hadley washes radishes at rhe Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.


    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Len Brouillette of South Hadley, picks cherry tomatoes at the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.  <br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Len Brouillette of South Hadley, picks cherry tomatoes at the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.



    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sue Brouillette and Will Schenker, 15, both of South Hadley, pick green peppers from the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley. Brouillette started the food pantry garden in 2011. <br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Sue Brouillette and Will Schenker, 15, both of South Hadley, pick green peppers from the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley. Brouillette started the food pantry garden in 2011.



    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Len Brouillette of South Hadley picks cherry tomatoes from the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.  <br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Len Brouillette of South Hadley picks cherry tomatoes from the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.




    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Larry Dubois of South Hadley built waist-high raised beds to enable people in wheelchairs to participate in the garden. He used rough-cut boards that haven’t been pressure-treated so are safe for vegetables. Shown here: butternut squash  <br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Larry Dubois of South Hadley built waist-high raised beds to enable people in wheelchairs to participate in the garden. He used rough-cut boards that haven’t been pressure-treated so are safe for vegetables. Shown here: butternut squash




    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • A discarded window frame is used as a bed for herbs at the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.  <br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    A discarded window frame is used as a bed for herbs at the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.



    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteers like Will Schenker, 15, of South Hadley, spread the vegetables out on turkey wire and wash them before packing them into boxes to take to the food pantry.<br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Len Brouillette of South Hadley washes radishes at rhe Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.  <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Len Brouillette of South Hadley, picks cherry tomatoes at the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.  <br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Sue Brouillette and Will Schenker, 15, both of South Hadley, pick green peppers from the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley. Brouillette started the food pantry garden in 2011. <br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Len Brouillette of South Hadley picks cherry tomatoes from the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.  <br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Larry Dubois of South Hadley built waist-high raised beds to enable people in wheelchairs to participate in the garden. He used rough-cut boards that haven’t been pressure-treated so are safe for vegetables. Shown here: butternut squash  <br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • A discarded window frame is used as a bed for herbs at the Food Pantry Garden in South Hadley.  <br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

Shiny purple eggplants, crisp green beans, bright yellow summer squash and cute cherry tomatoes — a group of dedicated volunteers quickly harvested a colorful array of vegetables on a drizzly morning last week in the South Hadley Community Gardens. The vegetables were all destined for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors local food pantry.

Sue Brouillette started the food pantry garden in 2011, shortly after the South Hadley food distribution program began, housed in the basement of the local Methodist Church.

The Neighbors Helping Neighbors food pantry serves about 140 South Hadley families who are invited to pick up supplies once every two weeks. Brouillette said the pantry has grown incredibly since 2011 when there were just 40 families enrolled. She said she believes the popularity is due partly to the fresh vegetables from the garden.

“I knew less than zero about gardening,” Brouillette confessed. “I always thought gardening meant you planted in the spring and you came back and harvested in the fall.”

All the day-to-day, summer-long maintenance came as a rude surprise. But Brouillette fell in love with gardening and she had plenty of experienced gardeners to help. She said there is a core group of a dozen volunteers and some who come occasionally. In addition, she has four high school interns and the help of an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who spends 25 percent of her time in the garden.

Jan Lieson, new to South Hadley in the past year, read in the newspaper about signing up for a community garden plot and came to a meeting. There she learned about the Neighbors Helping Neighbors project and as a novice, “This was a good idea for me,” she said.

“Every year the garden has been much better,” Brouillette said. She has learned a lot from the more-experienced gardeners who manage 44 plots in the community gardens. Among her mentors were Sue Kelsey and Pat Gouin, officers of GRO South Hadley, the community garden group, who also maintain a demonstration plot in the gardens for the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association. Brouillette took the association’s training course this past winter and is now an official intern.

The garden, which is 50 feet by 50 feet, is at the far end of the South Hadley Community Gardens next to Bachelor Brook Recreation Area on Route 47. The entire garden is surrounded by a high wire fence to exclude deer and woodchucks. However, a baby bunny had somehow intruded and could be seen hopping among the vegetables. Brouillette said voles have been a constant problem and there are snakes in the wood-chip pile scaring some people but definitely considered “good guys.”

The large garden is divided into beds with cardboard laid over wood chips for pathways. Len Brouillette, Sue Brouillette’s husband, who confessed he isn’t a gardener, lays the wood chips and mows the surrounding grass around the gardens.

There is a separate section for strawberries which volunteers said were very prolific this year.

Natural expansion

The South Hadley Community gardens started in 2009 with 25 plots. Two years later they leveled the hill next to the gardens to expand and to allow the creation of the Neighbors Helping Neighbors garden. This seemed a natural expansion of the community plots whose gardeners originally “gave stuff to the senior center,” explained Larry Dubois, garden manager for GRO South Hadley, the group that organized the community gardens.

“I’m the guy going around fixing things that broke,” he quipped. He and Len Brouillette recently assembled a tool shed that the group ordered this spring. Sue Brouillette, who obtained a $750 grant from the Norcross Wildlife Foundation for the shed, said, “I hope no one mistakes it for a Porta Potty.” It is the same size and shape but an attractive gray-with-white trim.

She noted that the Norcross Foundation only funds projects “you can knock on,” permanent structures rather than seeds or soil.

Brouillette also obtained a grant from the master gardener association for two waist-high raised beds to enable people in wheelchairs to participate in the garden. Dubois built the structures using rough-cut boards that haven’t been pressure-treated so are safe for vegetables. He said the bottom half of the beds are filled with wood chips to save on soil which occupies only the top half. He is growing butternut squash, lemon cucumbers on a trellis, herbs and flowers in the beds.

There are several different types of trellises in the food pantry garden, many of them recycled materials. “Sue believes in reusing things,” Dubois noted.

Tomatoes are grown the way most people grow peas, stretched out along a cattle wire fence, salvaged from another town conservation area. Pole beans have their own structure as do cucumbers. Stakes are made of rebar, the metal material used for concrete construction. Brouillette found a discarded window frame that was repurposed into an attractive bed for herbs.

Potatoes grow in huge above-ground bins made of heavy-duty plastic leftover from constructing compost bins. Dubois reported that another commercially made potato bin with drainage holes became so water-logged in the June rains that the plants rotted. The homemade bins are bottomless so the rain could drain away.

Dubois noted that a small group of volunteers participated in a workshop at the University of Massachusetts Amherst last year on constructing low hoop houses to extend the growing season. Using a special machine they bent metal conduit pipe into hoops that they cover with floating row covers or plastics to protect early crops. This winter they plan to grow kale under the hoops.

“We could harvest kale early in the spring,” Brouillette explained.

Tomatoes are just beginning to ripen but the lettuce was incredibly productive and they have four plantings of beans now being harvested. Peas were ready in early July and Brouillette just planted seeds for a fall crop. Other vegetables include Swiss chard, Russian kale, green bell peppers, small sweet peppers in yellow, purple and red, and onions. In addition they harvested 128 garlic plants. The two garlic beds now are planted with buckwheat, a cover crop intended as green manure to enrich the soil. In October they will turn over the buckwheat and plant new garlic for harvest next summer.

One small project is growing lima beans. They plan a children’s event later this month with a story time in the garden. Each child will take home some lima beans.

The Mexican bean beetle has been a problem this summer but one volunteer gardener purchased parasitic wasps as predators and the problem seems to have abated. Some of the tomato plants exhibit early blight but Brouillette said she simply picks off the sick leaves and the plants are doing fine.

Harvest time

Harvest time is Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 to 10 a.m., when volunteers wander through the garden picking vegetables and placing them in baskets and plastic containers. Then they spread them out on the turkey wire strip and wash them before packing them into boxes to take to the food pantry.

Will Schenker, an intern through the South Hadley Youth Commission, gleefully wielded the hose. The high school sophomore, who works in the garden two mornings a week, said what he likes most “is probably picking the crops.”

In addition, the group sells at the Thursday South Hadley farmers market garden produce leftover from the Wednesday food pantry distribution.

Brouillette said the farmers market “is an opportunity for us to go directly to the people who need the food,” since the market takes SNAP, the federal food stamp program. “It’s also informational,” she added, giving publicity to the food pantry and the garden.

Katy Chevalier, a South Hadley senior and another intern, sells some of the vegetables at the South Hadley Farmers Market as part of her internship.

Brouillette said the food pantry also offers canned goods and some fresh vegetables provided by other non-profit groups.

“It’s shocking to me,” she said, that much of the fresh produce from other sources is leftovers from local supermarkets. “It says this food isn’t good enough to sell but it’s good enough for poor people,” she said. “Our vegetables look like what you buy at Whole Foods.”

Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at valleygardens@comcast.net.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors Food Pantry is located in the United Methodist Church, 40 Carew St., South Hadley. The nonprofit group rents space from the church and has no religious affiliation. The pantry is open Wednesdays from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and again that evening from 6 to 7:30 p.m. It is also open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The South Hadley Farmers Market is Thursdays from 1 to 6 p.m. on the common across from the post office.

Comments
Legacy Comments1

It is great to see our wonderful food pantry garden so beautifully presented by Sherry Wilson.

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