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A few years ago after purchasing my home, my first, I sat in the sun behind the barn and began to imagine my garden. Here I could lay down an anchor and have room to do more than grow a few potted herbs. I pictured filling beds with carrots, cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins. This would be my Eden and where I would dig holes and plant seeds and kneel watching for Mother Nature to work her magic.
Just 24 miles from where I live, in Lewiston, are a group of people arriving in their own new homes, all the way from Africa. They too are embracing their garden plots and thinking about seeds, but for these immigrants, community garden plots are not just a pleasurable avocation. Their collective garden plots foster a sense of community, and the seeds they plant offer the practical opportunity to be self-sustaining and grow familiar foods.
Last weekend I drove up to Lewiston to oversee the transfer of seeds and seedlings from an heirloom seed project in Waldoboro to a youth and community-driven program there. This was something I helped organize after having been inspired by leaders on both ends.
Have you been to Lewiston? It’s absolutely wonderful. Park your car on Lisbon Street and check out the Somali owned shops with beautiful scarves, foreign foods, and African staples. After (or before) take time out at Forage Market for one of their wood-fired bagels, a coffee, and treats (so many of those!). The local library on the corner looks fantastic, and I’ve heard is really good. One of these days I plan to hang out there too.
Lewiston is a place of great change. It’s exciting to see. Back in 2001 (around the time I was arriving in Maine) the population of nearly 36,000 started to transition from being ninety-six percent white and predominantly Catholic—French-Canadian—to including several thousand ethnic Somalis, who now make up nearly ten percent of the population.
With high vacancy rates meaning affordable housing and a low crime rate, Lewiston offered immigrant families in urban areas of Georgia, Texas… a better place to raise families. Certainly Lots to Gardens, of the Nutrition Center of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, helped to lay a welcoming groundwork. The organization created community garden spaces in empty lots.
I became aware of Lots to Gardens a couple years ago. It has played a pivotal role in the lives of new immigrants by providing a place for them to grow fresh ingredients (many of which they also grew back home – e.g. onions) to feed their families and a visual platform by which people in the neighborhoods where the gardens are located pass their neighbors and see each other’s faces as they cultivate and grow food.
This past winter I was so inspired by all I had been learning about Lots to Gardens in Lewiston that when I met up once again with one of my all-time favorite people – Neil Lash – I knew they had to be paired up.
Neil cofounded the Medomak Valley High School’s Heirloom Seed Project in Waldoboro in 1990 as an effort to bridge the gap between the history lessons he was teaching in social studies classes and the genetics lessons in biology. Of the project’s 850 seeds, many have been passed down from generation to generation and provide a wealth of information, memories and history. Lash’s work is paramount to preserving agricultural biodiversity and keeping the dialogue about the time-honored tradition of seed saving relevant. Pretty exciting! He’s another of my food heroes.
For the past three years, the project has donated seeds to the Center for African Heritage Tidewater Farm Project International Gardens in Falmouth. So, when I approached Neil about donating seeds to Lots to Gardens he did what he always does when he’s excited about something – he jumped right in.
On Saturday, Nicholas Geer, a Food Corps member who works with Lots to Gardens, met me, Neil, and a couple of Neil’s students for a walking tour of the gardens and to receive the Willings Barbados Peppers and Fish Peppers (an African-American heirloom) seedlings.
We are all hoping this will become more of a cultural exchange with farmers sharing their stories with students. I plan to go back up in a few weeks to check in on the plants, take pictures, and connect with some of the wonderful folks I’ve met through Lots to Gardens.