Help Yourself: Edible gardens blossoming around Northampton

Last modified: Saturday, May 31, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — In cities, people are usually told to stay out of garden plots — but two new gardens in Northampton at Forbes Library on West Street and the Hampshire County Courthouse on Main Street are open for the picking.

Passersby are invited to wander into the gardens, where they can pick herbs, berries and fruit to their hearts’ content.

In the last week, Help Yourself! volunteers reclaimed sections of lawn at the two downtown buildings to create edible gardens. Help Yourself! is a two-year-old nonprofit that plants and maintains edible plantings around the Pioneer Valley for anyone to pick and eat.

Jessica Tanner, 41, of Northampton, said the idea is a novel one and people often need a little encouragement before they will consider picking from the community gardens.

Whenever she weeds raised beds along the Nagle Walkway, for example, people are curious about who owns the garden. “I emphasize that anyone can stop and pick,” Tanner said. “They do a kind of double-take at first.”

On Friday morning, eight people wearing gardening gloves and wielding trowels dug up the soil and applied compost to a small area between Forbes Library and its parking lot in preparation for planting strawberries, lettuce, spinach, nasturtium, chives, and ferns.

The gardeners were Help Yourself! and Valley Time Trade volunteers and the compost, plants, and mulch were mostly donated by local businesses and individuals, Tanner said.

Tanner said that while many people are still unaware of the urban edibles movement, the public plantings are becoming “the hot new project.”

“It’s a new idea, but I think it’s catching on. Cities around the U.S. are doing it. Chicago is incorporating whole community orchards,” she said.

Help Yourself! was inspired by the Incredible Edible project in the United Kingdom, said Felix Lufkin, co-chairman of the Northampton group.

“We’re just seeking to transform lawns in public places into community orchards and gardens,” he said. While many of the areas were already public space, they feel more communally owned when they bear fruit for anyone who passes by.

Library Director Janet Moulding said she thought the free community garden was an unusual concept when Tanner first suggested it last year. “But then I realized it fits in with our mission as a public library, education and community center,” Moulding said.

Tanner started searching for potential garden sites in downtown Northampton last summer and found support from Forbes Library leaders and Todd Ford, executive director of the Hampshire Council of Governments, located in the Old Courthouse on Main Street.

On May 25, Help Yourself! cultivated what will be the first of four plantings at the Old Courthouse garden. It included four Asian pear trees, berry bushes, cranberries, and witch hazel.

In a statement, Ford said the edibles would be a great fit for the Old Courthouse grounds, which he dubbed “the front yard of Northampton.”

Lufkin, 28, of Northampton, said the nonprofit has planted edibles at nearly 75 locations from Greenfield to Springfield in the last two years. Projects range from gardens at schools, parks, businesses and private homes, to more compact plantings that fit into smaller public spaces, like along bike paths and in islands in parking lots.

Last summer, along the Nagle Walkway and the Manhan Rail Trail in Northampton, volunteers planted a few raised beds, fruit trees, and 30 berry bushes, as well as 100 grape vines that they hope will climb the wooden fences along the path.

The organization is funded by grants and monetary and plant donations. While the trees, bushes and perennials are designed to be low-maintenance, Lufkin said he is seeking people willing to tend to existing plots.

“We need volunteers to adopt fruit trees and plots, to be the stewards of plots near their homes,” he said.

So far, herbs and vegetables are nearly ready for picking and grape vines and apple trees will start to bear fruit later this year. “When I consider all the grass space around Northampton, and if we planted them with something edible, I think we could grow a decent quantity of food,” Tanner said.

“People always throw ornamentals in the ground, but I think edibles can be just as beautiful and they use the same resources,” she said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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