The Jewel of Lisle: A Garden Provides

The Lisle Community Garden.

by Barbara C. Harrison

“Traveling to Apalachin, NY in June 2011, I came across a community garden. I stopped and walked the area. I was so taken with the size and beauty of the garden. This was not a community garden as we would characteristically think of a community garden, divided into individual plots and worked by individuals. It was one large plot gardened by the community. There was no one around, just a sign saying, ‘Take what you can use for the next two days,’ ” recounts Jodie Van Wert, founder of the Lisle Community Garden.

A seed was planted. As she drove toward home, Jodie began thinking about how this kind of garden could become a reality in the Village of Lisle where she resides and works as a postal employee. “I deliver the mail. I see how people live. There is a huge need in this area for fresh vegetables and food. It is not available,” states Jodie.

A few months later, Jodie contacted Jerry Mackey, the Mayor of Lisle about the concept of a garden for the Village. He agreed, and her idea began to take shape.

Lisle is a small town located in the Southern Tier of New York State where everyone knows everyone else. All you need to do is mention your idea to one person. Word of mouth will spread it around town and bring to the table a group of interested people that have a passion, in this instance for gardening and/or giving.

It started with four women sitting around a dining room table; in addition to Jodie, there was Dee Bodner. “Jodie asked me to help. I told her the summer is a hectic time for me. I am busy with my own garden, yard, and grandchildren, but I will help. The next thing I knew, I was at meetings. I said yes, I could call people. Let’s do some fundraising. Before I knew it, it was all consuming,” explains Dee. Another co-founder, Jane Nohe, lives a few doors down from Dee. The post office, where Jodie works is across the street. Jane offered the land that borders her house, located on the southeast corner of Route 79 and River Road. Today The Jewel of Lisle blossoms in all its glory; sparkling with tomatoes, peppers, squash, zucchini, broccoli, kohlrabi, sunflowers, beets, lettuce and cabbage to name some of the produce that grows there. A colorful sign catches the eye of those who pass by, letting them know that this garden belongs to all who need produce in Lisle and the surrounding towns. 

Tomatoes and potatoes in the garden.

Asking Jane what prompted her to offer her land and volunteer with the garden, she tells me, “We needed a piece of property for the garden, and in the Village preferably. We had a portion of land available. So I said, why not use it. As far as volunteering, it was something I thought that I could do. My previous volunteer job had ended. I had free time and went with this one. On the day we pick, I record all the produce, by type of vegetable, and the weight. We then know how much we obtained from the garden. We can look back at the record and see what vegetables produced well and which ones didn’t.”

Tressa Smith, another co-founder, a life long resident of Lisle, and who works at Greene’s Hardware, what she calls the hub of the community, continues the story. “The number of people who came to meetings became so large that the dining room table couldn’t hold them all and we moved the to the local library to continue growing Jodie’s idea.

“There was a lot of doubt at first at the meetings. Do you girls realize what you are getting into? Yes, it is a six-month commitment. When you are talking gardens, you can’t always depend on things. We realized that it wasn’t a sure-fire thing and we didn’t know how well it was going to produce, even with a few of us having gardening experience under our belts. Some produce is better than none, and we wanted to try. There was concern about kids vandalizing, which by the way has never happened. This was not a reason to stop trying. And like a miracle it began coming together. Over the winter a friend became restless and started planting seeds for the garden. She was overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. I told my husband I needed a greenhouse. We wrapped our broken down gazebo in plastic and voila we had a greenhouse. I offered space to my neighbor who was deluged with plants. We put a little heater in and kept going. Every time we ran into an obstacle, there was an answer. Somebody offered help and it changed our situation,” Dee recounts.

“Once the word got out that we were going to create a garden, the Village put the money up front to start a seed fund,” relates Tressa. “I felt guilty going to the greenhouses because they wouldn’t take my money. They would load my truck. I have a sizeable truck and the bed of my truck would be full of cabbage, cauliflower, or a hundred pepper plants.” For many individual community members, this was personal. They not only gave of their time, but after planting their gardens, they donated whatever seeds and plants were left over to the garden. Then there were the contributions of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church groups, and businesses like Tru Value and Greene’s Hardware, that gave garbage cans, buckets, gloves, and paint. The pharmacist contributed first aid supplies. Bottles of water were presented. The Mayor donated seeds. People started seeing things happen. When the garden was being prepared, a local farmer spread manure. New Holland Tractor drove from Vestal about 26 miles away, hauling a tractor on a trailer. Their guys tilled the soil free of charge. Two local growers, Growing Gardens on Route 79 and Whitney Point Flowers on Hickory Street provided many, many plants. Green’s wholesaler supplied quite a few plants to us at the end of his season. The plants are doing well, and are producing!

The community garden received an overabundance of seed donations and plants. In dire need, they sought a second space. Enter Tressa with her meadow and her philosophy of life. “There are those in this world that are takers and those that are givers. This was a way that I could be a giver and be home, work near and from home. I had a meadow that I wanted to do something with, whether it was building a baseball diamond for the neighborhood kids, or something else for the community. The garden seemed to be the most needed,” recounts Tressa. “If I had known about the pressing need that I have found in the last three weeks, and had a larger well, my 80 x 80 foot garden would be four acres. What prompted me to start it was to see what I could do myself and with a few volunteers. Maybe because I work at the local hardware store, I continually have people walking in and asking, ‘Do you have any? What’s coming ripe? Do you have any squash?’ Our need right now is mammoth. I have a list in my pocket of people waiting for summer squash, zucchini, and tomatoes. I can’t possibly meet them all. I’ve had to sacrifice my family pumpkins to make sure I have tomatoes to feed people.”

Through the winter and spring months, volunteers continued with the necessary preparation to ready the gardens for planting. On March 25, 2012, the sign went up, informing people that the Lisle Community Garden was a reality. On June 2nd, the first planting took place. Jodie explains, “We deliver to the needy and the elderly to begin with. It’s a small community. We pretty much know who can use produce and who can’t plant their own gardens. There is a big network of volunteers so we put our heads together. As I run into someone, I ask if they know of anybody that can use fresh produce. We deliver up to the Chow Unit. We go to the senior housing center and the shut-ins that we are made aware of. I set up at the Broome County Fair for a week. I got some more volunteers who gave me more names and numbers of people who could benefit from the Garden’s vegetables. The local churches have helped with the shut-in list.”

Jodie conveys one of many experiences she has had delivering produce. “I was delivering by myself. I went to Whitney Point Estates, a mobile home park. There are a lot of elderly who live there and a few people who are disabled. They were so tickled. I had one gentleman who is probably in his late nineties that use to be a postal employee. He did a lot for the community. I brought produce to his door. He use to garden, but he doesn’t anymore because he is wheelchair bound. I took his produce and put it away in his refrigerator. He sat there with tears in his eyes. That’s what it’s all about.”

There has been a resounding vote of confidence from all who have received food from the community garden. Jodie explains, “We are growing vegetables that people have never tried before. We are expanding their horizons. We try to tell them what the vegetable is, how to cook it and encourage them to move toward a healthier lifestyle.”

Tressa shares another story. “It was a good harvest week. Dee and I had picked over 150 lbs. My truck was full of crates, and baskets. Even my back seat was full of stuff, lettuce. We were driving around town. We have a list of shut-ins from the local mail delivery who can’t get out. First, we stop by the house of a man who is blind. We continue dropping off produce. For some, it was our second visit. We ended up in the trailer park. It’s a well-maintained park. One of the things we’re looking for are ramps. Many elderly live there. The people there are one step away from the nursing home. There is a young woman out in her yard. Her home has a ramp, which intrigued me. I said that we were from the Lisle Garden. I pretty much opened the truck. I asked her if she could use some produce. She said, ‘Sure.’ I asked her, ‘Would you like a head of cabbage?’ She replied, ‘Absolutely.’ Tressa knew that they were a low-income family and that this would help. Tressa asked her if she would like some kohlrabi. She tried to pronounce it. I said, ‘kohl-ra-bi. It’s like a broccoli or a turnip, and tastes like cabbage. You can eat the leaves and the bud.’ I showed her. She said, ‘I don’t have a clue how to cook it but I am going to make a soup.’

“She took kale, which she had never had before. She was going to make a soup. She took me over to her porch where she had tomato plants and squash growing in pots. The plants were looking very sad. I explained that they needed a little fertilizer. I not only dropped off fresh veggies to this woman, but two buckets of horse poop to help her fertilize her own garden to keep it going. I just asked her to return the buckets to the garden when she was done and she did. She was going to take anything we had to offer because she was going to make a soup. She didn’t know the name or how to pronounce the vegetables, but she was going to take it because she could subsidize her family’s food for that week. I’ve stopped back, and her tomatoes are doing better. I’ve taken her on as a project. To make soup you need an onion and a garlic.”

“It appears that more people than ever are in need of food. It’s important that it is all fresh produce. It is imperative not just to feed people, but that the food that they are getting is nutritious. What they get at food banks and pantries is canned and dried food. It’s better than nothing, but this is the best. We are supplying fresh, locally grown, non-certified organic produce,” asserts Dee.

Another story that illuminates the essence of why the Lisle Community Garden is the jewel of the community was shared by Dee. “We had a woman and her son stop by on a Sunday and asked if we had any zucchini. We had had a large harvest on Saturday. It was a big truck and promotion day. I told her that I would go into the garden and see what we had. She told me that she would take anything. It hit me that she was hungry at that moment.

“I took her into the garden with me. Jane and I picked zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes. We had her and her son pick the green beans. Jane proceeded to measure and document what had been picked. The woman thanked us. I informed her about the lunch program that we have at the fire station in Lisle, and told her to be sure to go over to the station on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s an hour commitment, but the parents get a lunch totally free. On Friday, you are given food to take home for the weekend. I asked her if she had ever gone to the food bank. She said no, that she didn’t even know where it was. I told her where the food pantry was and that she didn’t need to give out any information. The only thing they asked was how many people were in the family. This way they knew how much food to send home. I got her hooked up with those two things. I would hate for her to be in that position again.”

Lisle Community Garden reflects the true essence of what it means to be part of a community; of what it means when an individual with an idea takes the initiative, and joins together people of many different talents to assist people in need by treating them with respect and dignity, ensuring that they remain part of the community. A community garden not only cultivates the produce the earth produces, but it grows a culture of civic participation and a philosophy of community involvement.

For any questions as to how your community might grow a garden, don’t hesitate to contact the Lisle Community Garden at:

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