It is six o’clock on a Tuesday evening, the summer sun still strong. Raphael Notin, chair of Rhinebeck’s first community garden, is standing dead center of 28 garden plots. For all the enthusiasm and verve he has exhibited in the past 90 days to get this garden off—or, rather, in—the ground, he looks as if he has just been punched in the stomach.
“Well, it’s a good start,” he says.
He has just had a peek at what may be “late blight,” a highly contagious form of fungus. And it was on his tomato plant. His wife, Kim, co-leader of the garden, is quietly pruning, tending the Cherokee Purple tomatoes in their garden, before bringing Raphael over for another reason to fret: A huge caterpillar, the kind that some cultures eat for dinner, is attached to one of the tomato vines. They stare at it.
A neighboring gardener says, “Here, let me get it off for you—I have gloves,” and he peels the creature off before throwing it into the adjoining field.
And that is pretty much what this garden is about.
Every stakeholder in this small community garden knows a lot about caring, and lending a helping hand. People know who is who, which plots they tend, and what their communal job functions are. And this comes in handy, especially in getting advice from fellow gardener Chris Quimby, who volunteers with the Cornell Cooperative Extension. He tells the Notins that what they thought was the devastating “late blight” on their tomato plant appears to be classic “black spot.” (Although later in the summer, the garden’s tomatoes did succumb to late blight.)
And if you stand long enough on any given day or evening in this peaceful enclave, listening to the sounds—children playing in the recreational park’s pool across the parking lot, the chirping of crickets in the surrounding field, a shovel digging the earth—you will eventually be greeted with a smile from one of the gardeners and an offer of a green bean, a radish, a cherry tomato. The air seems to encourage good will.
“If you could have seen this place a month and a half ago,” says Alexi Stokas, who is helping his daughter, Ariana, tend her garden, “you wouldn’t believe it.” The land, a little over half an acre located in the Thomas Thompson-Sally Mazzarella Park near Starr Library, had been farmed as a corn field for 50 years until receiving approval in March for a community garden, part of the town’s master plan. Flanked by tall native plants on three sides, the spectacle is stunning.
The garden plots, each 15 by 20 feet, are as varied as the gardeners themselves. A hanging, woven planter with squash on each of three tiers stands in the corner of the Notin’s garden, peppers, melons, and mesculun grow in neat rows, and a wooden bench sits in the back. A plastic marker reading “Plant a row for the hungry” emerges from the soil amongst the tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini in the portion of the gardens that Chris Quimby oversees to provide food for the Red Hook Food Pantry. Chiropractor Denice Munier-Martin’s garden is resplendent with beans, corn, and basil as wells flowers, bursting with peonies and the dahlias and zinnias she entered for judging in the Dutchess County Fair. Children from the town’s day camp have hand-painted rocks around the perimeter of their flower and vegetable gardens.
And then there are the gardens of Patricia Hammar and Lori Doty, the envy of all. With trellises, a white picket fence, and a little umbrella attached to a beach chair on Hammar’s plot, there is nary a weed to be found. And the kale! And the peppers! “Patricia told me that she’s on her second planting,” says Alexi Stokas. “I don’t want to hear that,” he smiles. He walks away with two radishes and two beans from his daughter’s garden.
Adversity and Diversity
This summer was a difficult growing season. The late blight, similar to the one that caused the Irish potato famine, destroyed tomato plants in nearly every state in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. June and July brought record rainfall. Despite this, or perhaps in defiance of it, this little piece of land is thriving through hard work and optimism.
As for the rain, “I didn’t have to water for two months,” says gardener Evan Quimby. And that was a good thing. Garden treasurer Larry Miller, a freelance educator and librarian, notes, “If we had the garden where it was originally going to be planted [down a hill], it would’ve been rice paddies.”