High unemployment triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a huge increase in demand at food pantries throughout the region, especially for fresh produce. And since many pantries depend on restaurants for produce donations – and most restaurants have been closed or at reduced capacity for months – they have had to turn elsewhere for the bulk of their fresh vegetables.
Luckily, local community gardens are stepping in to pick up the slack.
At the East Farm Veggie Demo Garden in Kingston, where master gardeners trained by the University of Rhode Island tend an 8,500-square-foot vegetable garden to demonstrate innovative planting techniques, a team of master gardeners has put its educational mission on hold and turned to bulk food production instead.
“Our job this year is to crank out as much produce as we can,” said project leader and Exeter resident Nan Quinlan during a workday in mid-June. “Last year we delivered 1,800 pounds of food to the Jonnycake Center, and this year we want to up that considerably. We’re making our first delivery this week.”
Quinlan has been gardening at the East Farm facility since it was established in 2003, but she has considered herself a gardener since childhood.
“I was born into an Italian household, and if we didn’t raise it, hunt it, or grow it, we didn’t eat it,” she said. “We’ve always grown our own food, so I’ve always seen the value of gardening. It’s a mindful experience to give your time to producing food, but for many of us it’s also a distraction from the difficult things going on in the world.”
As Lee Menard of Burrillville planted lettuce and Nance Coulombe of South Kingstown spread fertilizer, Dave Vissoe – also of South Kingstown – hoed around some of the more delicate plants and talked about the “feeling of Zen” he gets from gardening.
“It’s a personal thing, it’s total relaxation,” said Vissoe, who also serves as the leader of an award-winning native plant garden at the Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown. “And then to see it all unfold and to see the pollinators come, it’s beautiful.”
As she glanced around the East Farm garden, Quinlan ticked off a long list of vegetables in various stages of growth, from obvious choices like peppers, tomatoes and squash to unexpected varieties like cucamelons, also called Mexican sour gherkins. “We grow them because we like to provide fun things for the kids to eat,” she said.
Quinlan pointed out several of the innovative growing strategies the gardeners employ to make the most of the space they have available. One section of the garden is devoted to what she calls companion planting – planting vegetables with similar nutrient requirements and similar pest problems together.
“The plants like each other – tomatoes, lettuce and onions, for instance – so we mix them together and they help each other to grow successfully,” she said. “One of the byproducts is that you can grow a lot in a small space.”
Interplanting, the practice of planting a fast-growing crop between a slower-growing one, is another strategy being employed. It is also used as a way of repeatedly growing the same crop in different stages in the same space.
The gardeners employ other little-known ideas as well, like planting herbs and flowers with certain scents designed to attract beneficial insects and chase away pest insects. Or they plant radishes as a sacrificial crop to draw aphids away from tomato plants.
During a typical year, the public is invited to events at the garden to learn these techniques and to get other gardening advice from the experts. But the pandemic has limited the number of master gardeners who can work the garden at one time and eliminated public visitation. Instead, the gardeners are hosting online gardening webinars attended by hundreds of people from near and far.
“There’s been a huge interest in home gardening this year because of concerns about food shortages and high food prices,” Quinlan said. “Many people have time on their hands, so they’re putting in gardens. My hope is that they keep it going once they all go back to work again.”
But this year, the gardeners all agree that their most important mission is to serve the needs of the clients at the Jonnycake Center. And the center’s food pantry manager Butch Bush could not be more pleased with the gardeners’ contributions.
“Our visitors value fresh produce more than anything,” said Bush. “We are so grateful to local farmers and gardeners who donate produce to our pantry, especially during these times of rising food prices. Without the support and dedication of the master gardeners at East Farm, we would not be able to provide the level of service that we do.”