by Eileen Weber
One of the things I remember most about summer was the garden my dad always lovingly tended. Cherry tomatoes. Sugar snap peas. Zucchini. Three different kinds of lettuce. And red currants that dazzled in the sunlight like little jewels hanging off the vine.
I never considered myself a gardener, but I’ve always appreciated the concept. This summer, I heard about a garden project for Operation Hope. A group of volunteers would plant vegetables and herbs for the Operation Hope Pantry. It’s a new take on an old concept: Feed the hungry, but make the food fresh.
“The project seems like it is something that should have been started (or at least thought of) a long time ago,” said Amanda Leslie, a volunteer who is a junior at George Washington University currently teaching English on the island of Mauritius, “because in my head it's sort of a 'duh', slap your forehead kind of moment putting two and two together of bringing food directly to people who need it and also using it as an education tool.”
The idea started with a petite woman in a wide-brimmed hat and a Scottish accent. A landscaper by trade, Eleanor Fraser wanted to do something valuable for the community. She put the word out and about a dozen volunteers—from college students to professionals—signed up to help, including myself.
But getting the project off the ground wasn’t so easy. Fraser managed to get a plot from the Town of Fairfield in a designated garden area. But many of the plots are overgrown with weeds or simply fallow. Unfortunately, a number of people will sign up for the plots with the intention of planting, but never do.
“I have a real problem with the plots not being used,” said Fran McDonough, a volunteer who helped Fraser get donations of dirt and mulch for the garden. She said she made a few phone calls and “talked to the right people.”
“The gardens aren’t as well organized as they are in other towns,” said Fraser. “Other neighboring towns send out a letter each year. If you don’t respond, it goes to the next person on the list. Fairfield doesn’t have that.”
She initially contacted the town in March to get a jump on the spring. But the town office, while congenial and helpful, was a bit disorganized. With the plot hassle and the excessively wet spring weather, the garden didn’t get underway until June.
“She’s been amazing,” said Michelle Stearns, Operation Hope’s Volunteer Coordinator. “It was such a hard time getting a plot. There was all that rain. The garden started late. But she persevered and got it off the ground.”
Fraser got donations and some supplies at cost. Gilbertie’s in Westport donated herbs and vegetable plants. Greenfield Nurseries and Geiger’s also gave herbs. Five yards of soil came from Greenscape. The deer and rabbit netting and the posts came from Poster’s Hardware and Rings’ End, respectively.
“The dynamic at the garden is also really great because it is a whole bunch of random people,” said Leslie in a recent e-mail, “either students doing volunteer hours, my brother who I dragged along at first who now loves it, or some adults who just really like being involved in the community and Operation Hope.”
Clearing the plot had its own pitfalls as well. Weeds the height of a small office building. Stinging nettle. Bugs. Rain. Mud. But with a little elbow grease, the group of us, lead by Fraser’s unflappable determination, removed the weeds and turned the soil.
“It's amazing how far the garden has come along! I remember in June when we were clearing out the weeds and digging trenches for the fencing, the end result seemed so far off,” said Hanna Noel, a senior at Colby College in Maine, “But now that we've planted a variety of vegetables and are about to plant herbs, our hard work is finally paying off!”
There’s has been an overwhelming sentiment among the garden volunteer: This garden would not be possible without Eleanor Fraser.
“I guess the most important aspect of the whole project is that Eleanor has single-handedly managed to get a plot, enlist volunteers, and get donations from nurseries and building supply places,” said Eileen Noel, a Kindergarten para-professional at Burr Elementary School. “A very amazing woman indeed!”
Fraser admitted that it was hard for her to come out of her shell. A naturally shy person, she doesn’t typically like to ask for help. But knowing that this was helping the homeless, it made it easier to come out of her comfort level.
“The best part,” said Fraser, “is the enthusiasm of all the volunteers who really committed themselves. It’s been a great experience.”
Fraser plans to continue the gardens, at least for the time being. She hopes to plant corn and pumpkins for next year. If you would like to volunteer or donate to the garden, please visit Operation Hope online or contact Michelle Stearns, Volunteer Coordinator, at 203-292-5588.