“Gardening is a multicomponent physical activity that includes aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and balance training elements, and counts toward weekly exercise recommendations.” That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control. Gardens also produce food, promote socialization, and aid mental health. All that — and flowers too — is happening in the community garden on the Woodside campus of Island Elderly Housing (IEH) in Oak Bluffs.
In the Woodside community garden are 26 elder-friendly raised beds, where individual gardeners cultivate crops of their own choosing. A flower bed where all are encouraged to pick bouquets occupies the center of the garden. Communal beds of strawberries and asparagus line the edge of the garden. Roses, blackberries, and grapevines climb the 10-foot fence, originally erected as protection against marauding herds of deer in this woodland preserve. Outside the fence, trees donated by an IEH tenant, George Szilassy, dot the landscape, bearing fruit for all to pick.
None of this happened overnight, but is the cumulative effect of decades of volunteerism and generosity by residents and staff of IEH, as well as the greater Island community. Each generation of IEH gardeners leaves behind in the garden some traces of themselves.
The garden started small — very small, with just a few ground plots — and came about through the efforts of garden originator Doris Gaffney, a wiry little woman with great energy and determination. “She began by getting the high school interested in constructing the fence, the shed, and the toolbox inside the garden,” according to garden historian Lynn Thorp. “Doris drove all over the Island, and found donations for the garden everywhere. People loved her passion toward building a community garden … and like a chorus, they gave and gave and gave everything she felt the garden orchestration needed.” When not creating the community garden, Doris regularly volunteered to distribute mail at Windemere, and could be spotted lunching each day in the M.V. Hospital cafe, “payment” for her morning’s work.
When Doris herself moved to Windemere, IEH residents Lynn and Bill Thorp stepped in. Bill constructed raised beds, and Lynn took on the installation of gravel walkways to make moving about the garden safer. Lynn raised funds for the gravel, and performed the arduous task of laying down a bed of canvas on which to pour the gravel. Bill brought to the garden some serious vegetable-growing experience, knowledge he shared with less experienced gardeners. Bill grew up in Western Nebraska, on land homesteaded by his great-grandmother, where each year horses ploughed and a windmill watered a large vegetable garden, one full acre in size.
Phyllis Dunne now serves as garden coordinator. A photographer by profession, Phyllis assigns garden beds and chores, and is a terrific “scrounger” of whatever is needed for the betterment of the garden. Under her leadership, truckloads of soil from Mahoney’s and Donaroma’s rolled in. Plants and garden equipment were rounded up, along with volunteers from the community and IEH staff. Cape Cod Five was induced to give both time and money, with employees showing up on a weekend for garden cleanup. Boy Scout troops and students are regular garden volunteers. Miller’s landscapers donated a sprinkler system, and IEH board member Cole Powers rebuilt the fencing, gates, and posts.
Among Woodside’s most enthusiastic gardeners is Ilka List, a sculptor who shows at Tanya Augoustinos’ A Gallery. She finds the garden “a healing place.” Growing in her two raised beds is what she calls an “eclectic mix, lettuce to gladiolas.” And she is a jelly maker, recently boiling up grapes harvested from Woodside vines.
Maureen Mullen came to the Woodside garden four years ago with a master gardener certificate from the Chicago Botanical Garden. Strictly a flower gardener, Maureen raises Russian sage, veronica (speedwell), and liatris for “artistic expression.” She also raises catmint for its aromatic leaves and sweet little blossoms, but for the cats of Woodside, it’s a much-coveted special treat. Maureen says she comes to the garden for fellowship, and because nurturing the plants gives her an emotional kick.
Contributing to IEH is an Island tradition dating back nearly half a century to when founder Carol Lashnits successfully hit up fellow Vineyarders for land on which to build her dream of rental housing for low-income elderly. Eleven buildings containing 160 apartments went up while Carol helmed IEH, and Margaret Love donated her waterfront home in Vineyard Haven, which today contains five efficiency apartments.
Given today’s land valuations, asking for similar land contributions now borders on the unrealistic. But time, money, and garden goods do continue to flow in for the betterment of the community garden. A few of the many contributors have been the Greenhouse of Martha’s Vineyard (a.k.a. COMSOG), the M.V. Agricultural Society, the Permanent Endowment, Santander and M.V. banks, Beetlebung Tree Care, and the Vineyard Home Center.
Coming up at the garden
The strawberry beds, badly overrun with weeds, need attention, new plants, and volunteers to pull weeds. Raised beds need rehabbing. Efforts to make the garden more handicapped-accessible will continue. A mystery woman has promised plants. The anonymous Facebook contributor with the handle “MVGardener” reacted to photographer Paul Doughterty’s recent community garden photo spread by offering to donate tomato and cucumber plants, basil, and sunflowers for next season. She even volunteered to help plant them.