Sycamore Field Community Garden looks to expand, serve more low-income refugees living in Concord

Last modified: 6/1/2014 11:40:52 PM
The gardeners waited.

They craned their necks from where they stood in a long line Thursday night at NHTI, peeking at the plastic planters with green beginnings of eggplants and tomatoes.

Between the gardeners and the seedlings was Hema Gautam, 19.

Gautam is one of the cultural liaisons at the Sycamore Field Community Garden in Concord, a translator fluent in both her native Nepali and English. She helped the gardeners, most of whom are refugees from Asia and Africa, collect their share of free seedlings at that night’s plant giveaway. In her jeans and flip-flops, she climbed over trays of plants to hand packets of okra seeds to women in traditional Bhutanese dress.

“To them, it’s like a home feeling to come here and work in a garden,” she said.

The gardeners in Gautam’s line are the lucky ones, the families who paid a $15 fee for one of 138 garden plots at Sycamore Field. Earlier this year, nearly 70 people showed up for a chance at one of four open plots for this year’s growing season.

“We would love to have more gardeners. . . . It’s just not possible for us,” Gautam said.

It’s not possible because water is scarce at Sycamore Field, and the garden can’t sustain any more plots without a well – a $15,000 proposition, said garden manager Cheryl Bourassa. Because the nonprofit relies heavily on donations and grants to keep the operation open, it cannot keep up with the demand for garden space from the low-income families it serves.

“If we had 280 plots out here, we’d still have families that wanted them,” she said.

Re-creating ‘life in a village’

The late afternoon sun was warm over the garden Thursday, and it was time for Ghana Khatiwada and his wife, Rupa, to harvest their first mustard crop of the season.

Rupa tucked each broad green leaf into a plastic bag. She would bring the mustard home to dry and pickle, then use as a tangy seasoning for traditional Bhutanese dishes throughout the year.

Their fingers were deft as they worked, but Ghana laughed as he planted new seeds. His mother was at home watching his 2-year-old daughter and his brother’s children – and she would be sure to grill him about the garden when he got back to their family home.

“Definitely, she’ll ask me a question, ‘Where did you plant those?’ ” he said.

Ghana, 33, and his family are among thousands of refugees who fled Bhutan in the 1990s for refugee camps in Nepal.

“One side of the plot is like the size of the house we used to live in, in Nepal,” he said, gesturing across half the 13-foot-by-27-foot garden.

He moved to New Hampshire about five years ago and found the Sycamore Field Community Garden – a natural fit especially for refugees of his mother’s generation, he said, who have lived their lives with hands in the soil.

“They used to spend most of their time in their gardens,” he said.

In New Hampshire, the habit is also helpful to balancing an American budget.

“We are saving a lot of money,” he said. “In the winter, we spent a lot of money on vegetables like tomatoes, okra, eggplants.”

Ghana and Rupa weren’t the only ones taking advantage of Thursday’s sun. Other gardeners talked across their plants as children ran between plots, their chatter keeping away pesky groundhogs, at least for the evening.

Summer nights at the garden are often like this, Bourassa said.

“It’s almost like a little social club,” Bourassa said. “It’s this real sense of life in a village.”

Ghana’s family was one of the first Bhutanese families to resettle in Concord, he said, but the population has grown over the years. A few yards away, a Bhutanese woman carried two full watering cans from the nearby pond to her garden plot.

“There are a lot of families that are still without a garden,” Ghana said.

Thirsting for a well

As the gardeners collected their plants and buried their seedlings Thursday, Lea Smith and her 17-year-old daughter Marin wandered through the garden with a camera. They were shooting footage for a video they’re hoping will attract donors to the garden as part of a new crowdfunding project by the Unitarian Universalist organization called Faithify, which will launch later this month.

The garden at Sycamore Field will be one of 15 projects across the country to participate, they said.

“Maybe somebody in Idaho will be inspired to help refugee farmers in Concord, N.H.,” said Lea, 43.

The money would help Bourassa pay for the well she wants to dig in the field. She’s applied for other grants through other nonprofits and the government, without success.

“I spend my winters trying to write grants,” she said.

It’s hard enough to come by the roughly $10,000 needed to run the garden each year, especially when the garden purposefully keeps its fee at $15 to help families who can’t afford to pay more. Bourassa struggles to find extra money for grants that require matching funds, and the garden has no way to become self-sustainable, as some other government programs require.

“We live a day-to-day existence out here,” Bourassa said.

Sadiqi Sadiqi, a Burundi native who is also a cultural liaison for the garden, translated between English and Swahili for other African refugees at the plant giveaway Thursday.

“They’re asking if they have African eggplant,” he explained in English.

Sadiqi, 37, moved to New Hampshire about 10 years ago. Most of the gardeners are Bhutanese, but others are from African countries like Rwanda or Somalia, he said.

“We have many languages, many countries,” he said, surveying the other gardeners.

Families can register for their same plots from the previous season, but any that are unclaimed are given away to new gardeners. Sadiqi pointed to one of the men waiting for free seedlings, remembering how ecstatic he was when his number was pulled at the lottery for one of this year’s four open plots.

“He was so happy,” Sadiqi said. “He was saying, ‘I cannot believe I got the garden.’ ”

The man moved forward to claim his plants. So many other families in Concord wanted to be waiting in that line, too, Sadiqi said. But the water and the money to support them just isn’t there.

“Where we can find it, we don’t know,” Sadiqi said.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 360-3321 or or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)


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