‘Unity Garden’ growing in Greenport

For the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Greenport STEAM teacher Brady Wilkins and village resident Penelope Rudder had envisioned a series of projects and a celebration in partnership with students at the school.

While those plans were put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, the idea has since blossomed into a reimagining of the school’s garden as a more accessible, community-centric place.

Volunteers have teamed up to imbue the existing garden plot with new life. The team hopes to grow a zero-waste, organic and nutritious garden that will unite the community at large in the context of learning about and caring for the environment.

The 60-by-100-foot garden was originally funded by the Seeds for Change grant program in 2016. But without a summer program to continue what students worked on during the school year, it became overgrown and many fruits and vegetables went unharvested. “It needs attention over the summer,” Mr. Wilkins said.

The team of volunteers has been working to weed 20 existing garden beds while constructing and planting an additional 20 beds, which were built using untreated wood. They’ve also pledged not to use harmful chemicals in the garden and have left the perimeter wild, showcasing a variety of native flower and grass species. The garden is currently planted with spinach, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, squash, beets, garlic, beans, eggplants, peppers and flowers.

“It’s a great effort together that’ll be beneficial to the community,” Mr. Wilkins said.

“My whole world revolves around food and the environment: not wanting to waste food, making sure everyone has access to really good, healthy food,” Ms. Rudder said.

Several varieties of lettuce are growing in the garden at Greenport school. (Credit: Tara Smith)

Two years ago, Ms. Rudder spearheaded an initiative to place a Little Free Pantry in Greenport to help nourish neighbors in need. She hopes the unity garden will eventually play a similar role in feeding the community.

“It’s a huge learning experience,” Ms. Rudder said, adding that she sees opportunity in the space during all four seasons. “If kids are in school and stressed out and need a break, relax, look at the plants, bugs, weed. I hope it’ll be a cornerstone for the school and also the community,” she said. “Gardening can touch any part of your life and it has a lot of value that we’re trying to expand beyond the club and curriculum.” 

Sonia Spar says she takes her children to the garden often, even if it’s just to pull weeds for an hour. “It’s quality time for us,” she said. “Nature and gardening is an activity that takes your mind away from everything going on.”

Ms. Spar said their goal is to educate students of all ages about where their food comes from and provide a safe space for children with food allergies. She also hopes to increase outreach to families in the community.

Mr. Wilkins, who also teaches art, considers the garden a living science lab.

“Our goal is to utilize the space not just for growing food but just to be in the space,” he said, which may be critical as reopening during COVID-19 has focused on outdoor spaces.

Due to remaining COVID restrictions, however, the garden isn’t open to community gardeners just yet, though Ms. Rudder said that’s a future goal.

The group plans to hold a “free for all” market featuring produce grown at the garden on Wednesdays starting July 1 at 5 p.m. Anyone who attends is asked to wear a face covering and adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“We’ll be able to share what we’ve grown,” Ms. Rudder said. “There’s a definite want and desire for us to be able to feed the community with the resources we’ve got.”