Last modified: Tuesday, June 18, 2013

There might be 100 new gardens in Amherst this spring.

That is the goal of Grow Food Amherst, which has launched the 350 Amherst Garden Challenge for 2013. The goal is to create 100 new gardens this spring with the support of at least 350 Amherst residents. The idea was inspired by the 350 Home and Garden Challenge that started a few years ago in Sonoma County, Calif.

The number 350, organizers say, has two meanings. It is the level of carbon dioxide, measured in parts per million, that many scientists believe is safe to have in the atmosphere without radical climate change, according to the Grow Food Amherst website. Some organizers also believe that 350 residents to represent one percent of the Amherst population, and hope for sustainable food growers to become the “new one percent.”

Grow Food Amherst is a collaboration of Amherst residents and organizations with a shared mission to grow more food locally. It was born out of a meeting in Amherst Town Hall last June, where a group of Valley residents came together to discuss ways to grow more of their own food. John Gerber, professor of Sustainable Food and Farming in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts and Stephanie Ciccarello, sustainability coordinator for the Town of Amherst, were two of the original members who called the meeting at the suggestion of David Ziomek, assistant town manager and director of conservation and development.

Starting small

Gerber said that one of his initial ideas was to improve education around community gardens, but found that new gardeners preferred to start in their own backyards, as opposed to in a large plot among accomplished gardeners.

“If you’re a new gardener, that seems a little daunting,” said Gerber. “To get something started in your backyard or on your windowsill seems to be a whole lot more accessible to newcomers.”

Through the garden challenge, organizers hope to bring in more long-term support for Grow Food Amherst, and that residents with all levels of gardening experience will find ways to participate.

“We don’t expect anyone to come to every meeting and to be involved in every single thing we do, but the idea is that as a community together we can have lots going on, and we can contribute in whatever ways we can,” Ciccarello said.

Ciccarello said she hopes to see people not only growing more food for themselves, but to share what they grow with one another.

“It’s this idea of community engagement, people helping each other — that’s the thing that encourages me,” said Ciccarello. “So what I’d like to see is more gardens and more neighbors helping neighbors.”

Amherst resident Linda Seligman has experienced this firsthand.

“People come together around food,” said Seligman, who started a vegetable garden two years ago with no prior experience, and soon found that she could grow enough food to share with neighbors. “It feels like a social magnet. It’s really new for me.”

Seligman, who said she was drawn to Grow Food Amherst meetings out of her increasing concern over climate change, has her garden in her front yard, where she found she had the best sun exposure. She said it often becomes a conversation starter.

“Everyone that walked by said something about my garden if I’m out there,” Seligman said.

Town/gown effort

At the same time, participating organizations of the Grow Food Amherst effort hope the challenge will be a way to bridge the gap between town residents and the students.

Tripper O’Mara, a recent UMass graduate and sustainability coordinator for UMass Auxiliary Services, gained food-growing experience last summer while interning for the UMass Permaculture Initiative, a student-created program that converts underused lawns on the campus into food-producing gardens. The initiative is one of the main organizations involved in the garden challenge. Now working to promote the challenge through social media and other forms of online outreach, O’Mara said his main goal is to reach the student population of Amherst.

“That’s my end goal, getting a lot of college students more reconnected with the town, and feeling like they have an investment here at UMass by growing their own food,” O’Mara said.

To include a younger student population, too, the Permaculture in the Pioneer Valley class at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture will be planting a garden at each of the three Amherst elementary schools. The project began last fall with the planting of apple trees at each school. For the spring, the plan is to expand beyond that and plant small gardens, said Sarah Berquist, a recent UMass graduate and sustainability coordinator for UMass Auxiliary Services and a co-facilitator of the Permaculture in the Pioneer Valley class. The three gardens will count toward the goal of 100 for the challenge.

“If you think about it, we’re potentially reaching almost every age group,” said O’Mara, who participated in planting the apple trees in the fall. “So it’s involving everybody. That’s what’s the most exciting and inspiring part of the whole project.”

For new gardeners, Grow Food Amherst held a free introduction workshop April 18 at Amherst Town Hall, taught by the Master Gardeners of Western Massachusetts. Upcoming events include the Amherst Sustainability Festival on April 27, where Grow Food Amherst will have a booth to promote the garden challenge, and an interactive “Outdoor Living Classroom” event on May 5 at 1 p.m. in the UMass Permaculture Franklin Garden, the large leaf-shaped permaculture garden adjacent to the Franklin Dining Commons. The event, co-sponsored by Grow Food Amherst with the UMass Permaculture Initiative, will consist of a variety of workshops on gardening topics such as composting, seeding and transplanting and sheet mulching, according to the event’s Facebook page.


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