Gardening During a Pandemic: Fenway Victory Gardens Members Work Together to Make Growing Season a Success

Gardening is always a popular activity in the City of Boston, but it became all the rage this summer because of its outdoor, social-distancing friendly nature.

The Sun spoke with Fenway Garden Society president Elizabeth Bertolozzi for an update on how this year’s growing season fared at the Victory Gardens.

Bertolozzi said that many changes were made to the usual protocol this year because of the virus, but the gardens were still very successful.

“Early on in the season, we let gardeners know that the gardening season wasn’t going to be cancelled,” she said. “People were reassured about that, as they were looking to use their gardens and really have it as a space where they could get out and enjoy the outdoors and not worry about the concerns.”

She said that certain new protocols have been adopted to help keep gardeners safe, including no longer sharing tools and leaving some gates open to reduce the number of high-touch areas. Wheelbarrows are still shared, though people are required to use gloves and wipe down any other shared surface they come into contact with, she said.

“Our ability to recruit volunteers has really been hampered this year because of the virus,” she said. Each member of the garden makes a commitment to help maintain the garden as a whole once they obtain a plot, so each of them has been volunteering a certain number of hours, she said.

Regular community participation days for the garden have been cancelled because it would require too many people to gather, but smaller groups of no more than 10 people have been helping to maintain certain common areas of the garden.

Bertolozzi said that for the first time this season, a group of non-members came in to volunteer recently. A management consulting firm brought in some of its employees to help out in the garden, and Bertolozzi said they really enjoyed the opportunity to see each other in person for the first time since March while being able to contribute to a larger cause.

In the spring, the garden members typically partake in a bulk order of materials for gardens, including wood for raised beds, posts, dirt, cow manure, and more. However, this year, it was not possible because it takes too many people working close together to make it happen. Instead, some gardeners who had cars were able to get materials for those who were unable to do so themselves.

“We have talked about possibly doing a bulk order in the fall,” she said. “That is still an option,” as people need to amend their soil and clean out their gardens to prep for the next growing season. “We’re trying to follow the City of Boston and the Parks Department guidelines just to make sure that everyone is feeling comfortable,” she said.

The gardens also traditionally offer a seed donation program to members with donated seeds for herbs, tomatoes, and other vegetables, but there was a seed and seedling shortage this year.

Gardeners started tomatoes from seed from prior years instead, and there has been a plethora of tomatoes and other vegetables harvested, many of which have been donated to Women’s Lunch Place to be turned into healthy meals for homeless and low income women.

There has also been an influx of people interested in obtaining a plot in the gardens. “In terms of membership, our waitlist has exploded,” Bertolozzi said. She said that some veteran gardeners held several plots over the years, and have since left the garden, allowing membership to increase.

The waitlist is around 250 people, and “we are still pulling people off the 2019 waitlist,” she said.

“We have a really diverse membership,” she continued, with people from many different areas of the City who speak 17 different languages and are of various ages, races, cultures, and socioeconomic statuses, she said. “It has been interesting listening to the scope of diverse challenges that [the virus] has posed to our members,” she said.

She said there are a “significant number of elders in the gardens as well as gardeners at additional risk of the virus,” so this year, the Board has reached out to those who are not able to come and tend to their gardens to see how others may be able to assist. “It’s requiring a lot more coordination and a lot more communication with gardeners and with our organizational folks who are tasked with providing support to these gardeners,” she said.

“A lot of people have struggled with the lack of large social events that we’ve had in the past,” she continued. “After a while, people get tired of Zoom meetings. People don’t want to sit at home at a Zoom meeting; they want to be outside enjoying the outdoors.”

She said that the Victory Gardens are “doing what we can,” and are “fortunate that our gardens are fairly large,” which allows gardeners to converse with passersby at a safe distance, or a small group of people can gather in one of the common areas. “That’s really been a comfort to a lot of us,” she said.

She said that it’s been strange this year without crowds coming to Fenway Park and a significant decrease in tourists who used to come walk through the gardens.

However, Bertolozzi said that neighbors are beginning to spend more time in the gardens, which has been “nice to see.” She added that park rangers and D4 officers are “extremely visible in the gardens throughout the day, keeping the garden safe.”

Additionally, the pollinator garden that has been in the works is moving forward. “I’m happy to report that we have a landscape architect who we are working with,” Bertolozzi said. She said the goal is to have the garden space completed by the end of the year, and there will likely be a virtual event to celebrate the garden opening.

During these difficult times, she said that it’s important to “recognize that we have shared challenges and that it’s important to be tolerant and to understand that everyone is under a lot of the same stresses, and to just have a little more empathy with anyone you’re interacting with.”

Bertolozzi said she encourages people to visit the gardens— they are open 365 days a year—and chat with gardeners.

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “It really is central to really understanding what it takes for a community, especially a gardening community, to work well together.”

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