Community Gardens Bloom Across Westchester County

Photos courtesy of the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Inc.

As the march toward healthier lifestyles, locavorism, farm-to-table, and social engagement continues, the community garden in Westchester is blooming.

Not too long ago, farms blanketed Westchester. Then came the burbs, yet the longing to grow persisted. During the pandemic, home gardening experienced a kind of vogue. After social distancing strictures relaxed, many locals set their sights on larger plots.

“It’s a golden age for community gardens,” says public garden veteran Barbara Sarbin at Something Good in the World, in Cortlandt Manor. “There’s a lot of grant money out there.”

Gardens that serve a community often differ in philosophy, governance, and other factors, but most of them maintain a mission that might include a mix of education, organic practices, feeding people with giving gardens, and instituting grassroots change.

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Then again, the cultivator next door could just be a foodie seeking to grow exotic herbs or special peppers.

From teaching gardens and urban gardens to grassroots cooperatives and others difficult to categorize, the community garden movement is thriving in the county. Here are just nine of the dozens that have popped up in Westchester.

Grow! Lincoln Park Community Garden, New Rochelle

In the shadow of two apartment buildings, this 10,000-square-foot garden promotes myriad missions and serves many apartment dwellers. It occupies the site of a school purposely destroyed after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and is geared toward maximizing output and feeding people. The operation, which includes a sanctuary for butterflies and native plants, is expanding to include an 8,000-square-foot facility perched on the rooftop of a new high-rise next door. They’re also adding 4,000 square feet of growing space near the Boys & Girls Club, along with two greenhouses.

Grow! Lincoln Park Community Garden administrator Linda Tarrant-Reid (center) leads a tour of the garden with graduate students from the Harvard School of Design.
Grow! Lincoln Park Community Garden administrator Linda Tarrant-Reid (center) leads a tour of the garden with graduate students from the Harvard School of Design.

Hilltop Hanover Farm & Environmental Center, Yorktown Heights

Spread over 50 acres, this county-owned working farm buzzes with activity throughout the growing season, though there are no individual plots available. There are, however, numerous workshops and volunteer opportunities to help sharpen growing skills. The native plant nursery offers the only living seed bank and hands-on program of its kind in the area. On a misty day, the vista of Northern Westchester’s rippling hills resembles the hollows of West Virginia.

Westchester County Jail, Valhalla

Inmates have worked the land surrounding the county jail in Valhalla for more than a century. The jail’s farm once comprised 600 acres and included a full range of produce and livestock. Over the years, the garden donated vegetables to Feeding Westchester, but that arrangement ended, as the growing space was downsized. Some residents who tend to the small patch of land inside a recreation area at the women’s facility work with the EMERGE and Growing Together programs at Family Services of Westchester, which prepare participants for life on the outside.

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Peekskill Regenerative Farm

It’s odd seeing a dozen bales of hay stacked near the roadside in downtown Peekskill, where urban gardeners cultivate wavy mounds of dirt sandwiched between Oakside Elementary School and a public park with a basketball court. Stewards of this quarter-acre plot give food away. A paid, full-time farmer helps implement the first step toward an ambitious mission. There’s no fence: People are welcome to come and pick food anytime. The farm’s sponsor, Garrison-based nonprofit Ecological Citizen’s Project, plans to install solar panels on rooftops citywide, to help fund more farms.

InterGenerate, Chappaqua

Passing down knowledge to youngsters is part of InterGenerate’s DNA, not just its name. In addition to running its show-piece garden in Chappaqua, which hosts a summer camp that pairs an older gardener with a budding youngster, InterGenerate established another public garden in Millwood and keeps 40 chickens at John Jay Homestead in Katonah. The next step is to hire farmers and consultants to extend the principles of organic gardening and biodiversity to homeowners’ yards by encouraging strategies like fruit-tree guilds, which create mini-ecosystems centered on fruit trees and complementary plants.

Janet Morra of Croton-on-Hudson hosts a YouTube show, Garden Time with Janet, covering topics ranging from flower and bulb planting to indoor winter gardening and, of course, community gardening.
Janet Morra of Croton-on-Hudson hosts a YouTube show, Garden Time with Janet, covering topics ranging from flower and bulb planting to indoor winter gardening and, of course, community gardening.

Expert gardener Janet Morra crisscrosses the northern county to work with various community groups.

So dedicated is garden guru Janet Morra that she grows a full range of crops inside her apartment during the winter. And she refuses any payment for her services. In addition to having started six existing community gardens, she trained almost 200 people last year and rehabbed a growing space at a convent in Ossining. Now, she’s expanding a community garden in Cortlandt and introducing new trends as master gardener at Garden of Hope in Yorktown Heights.

Roots & Wings Growing Community, Dobbs Ferry

Many churches and other religious organizations encourage local cultivators to grow on their grounds. Roots & Wings practices an array of farming methods at South Presbyterian Church and adopts leading-edge practices and shares knowledge countywide. Few of the gardeners are affiliated with the institution, but they teach, give away food, and create compost on the compound, which includes a nursery school where the students pitch in. Plans include creating a food forest (with food growing in trees, in bushes, and in the ground) and helping Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church get its own garden growing.

Ward Acres Community Garden, New Rochelle

Three nearby homeowners with shaded property got the city’s approval to transform part of a former horse farm into an 88-bed communal garden, where tools, labor, and knowledge are shared. After bringing in irrigation and building infrastructure, the group seeks nonprofit status to apply for grants. In addition to collaborating with the elementary school across the street, they work with adults who live in nearby group homes. The space, which provides sociability to help alleviate what can be a solitary pastime, is also culturally diverse: Growers from around the world cultivate unique crops and swap recipes.

Municipal Gardens, various locations

Since 1975, residents of Greenburgh have been able to grow in individual beds just off of busy Route 100A. It’s the traditional community garden model, providing a bed or fenced-in area on public land. There’s a similar set up on bustling Route 6 in Peekskill — one in a backwoods area of White Plains (Baldwin Farm) and another in Hastings-on-Hudson (started during World War I). Some have strict rules; others are more laid-back. There’s often a nominal fee. Newcomers should expect to be placed on a waiting list: Some gardeners in Greenburgh, for example, have tended their allotted spaces for decades.

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Ossining High School’s Mindfulness Garden

Occupying an inner courtyard at the secondary school, the Mindfulness Garden serves as a living laboratory and a sanctuary. Students in Danielle Jackson’s Interactive Ecology elective tend to five beds, with different growing themes that are adorned with colorful, hand-painted signs. There’s even a bee sanctuary and a small patch of native plantings. Special-education students who help maintain the oasis also benefit from interacting with nature. A dozen Adirondack chairs arranged in a circle around a cherry tree provide a soothing respite from the busy hallways.

Real Gardeners Compost!

A program that turns recycled food scraps into compost is a hit with more than 50 towns in Westchester and beyond.

Across the Tristate region, it’s called the Scarsdale System. This is no fad diet or formula for building wealth. It’s about making compost, also known as black gold, from food scraps.

So far, more than 30 Westchester municipalities have implemented this simple, replicable program, along with 20 others throughout the region, says resident volunteer Michelle Sterling, who developed the system along with fellow resident Ron Schulhof.

Making it easy for households to participate can dramatically decrease the amount of organic material that enters the solid-waste stream and create a useful product, says Schulhof.

Left to right: Ron Schulhof, Michelle Sterling, and Tyler Seifert, assistant superintendent of the Scarsdale Department of Public Works
Left to right: Ron Schulhof, Michelle Sterling, and Tyler Seifert, assistant superintendent of the Scarsdale Department of Public Works

The simple strategy calls for providing residents with a countertop pail, compostable bags, and larger bins. Municipalities open a public drop-off spot, and educational outreach generates participation.

The next step, providing curbside pickup, would make it easier for households to get involved.

Thanks to the Scarsdale initiative, the county’s organic waste goes to a commercial composting facility in Cortlandt, diverting it from the incinerator downriver, in Peekskill. Since 2017, Scarsdale residents have converted 2.7 million pounds of food scraps into compost.

“It just becomes muscle memory,” says Sterling. “We’ve been recycling cans for so long; it would feel weird to put one in the garbage. It will be the same for food waste.”

Marc Ferris is the author of Star-Spangled Banner: the Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem. He also performs the live musical history tour Star-Spangled Mystery, based on the book.

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