Bhutanese refugees embrace community garden on farmer’s land

Last modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2014
The old cherry trees wouldn’t be moved, Tony Gillespie decided while tilling soil on his 13 bucolic acres in Canterbury.

The shade he’d provide would be appreciated on hot days at the community garden, he thought, when planning began two years ago. He was sure someone would come to use the land, but at the time, he didn’t know they’d be coming from half a world away.

Between thunderstorms Thursday afternoon, a dozen Bhutanese refugees sought a seat beneath those two trees, as a warm breeze ruffled the nearby corn husks they had planted months before.

This, said Concord’s Ghana Sharma, is the Bhutanese community garden, tucked behind a red farmhouse on Southwest Road, near the Concord line.

The garden sits at the intersection of two cultures: those of the Gillespie family and the area’s Bhutanese community. It is a unique arrangement that has Gillespie’s children mulling through rows of vegetables as Bhutanese elders tend to their crop, one of few remaining connections to their home. For the Bhutanese, time spent in the garden is therapeutic. For Tony and Isabel Gillespie, the garden is the realization of a family’s desire to find a meaningful use for its land.

“We had prayed for something like this to happen,” Tony Gillespie said. “It wasn’t really a long-term plan, but it’s been a desire for a long time.”

The family broke ground on the first plots in July 2012. About 25 Bhutanese families maintained gardens during the first season. This summer, about 57 families are tilling the soil, planting traditional crops and harvesting from their personal plots.

“The people come partly to harvest and work in the garden,” said Sharma, a Bhutanese native and the garden’s administrator. “We are farmers, and we come from a country where they did that. For them to come here and not have that was very difficult for them.”

This was the message Sharma delivered to Gillespie two years ago during a birthday party. Gillespie’s wife, Isabel, was teaching English to new Americans through the New Beginnings Church of the Nazarene when a Nepalese student invited the couple to a party.

“I wasn’t all that enthused about going, but I went anyway,” Gillespie said. The property, dubbed Indian Meadows, had been in the family for more than three decades, and Tony Gillespie moved from Nashua about eight years ago. The family had wondered about meaningful uses for the land, and Ghana’s message was an unexpected answer.

“Ghana and I met and started talking about gardens, and we had really been praying about having some people we could share our land with,” Gillespie said. “It was my parents’ desire to do this kind of thing. They never had this opportunity exactly, but they were generous people, and they would have liked to see this being done.”

The garden doesn’t close, and its users aren’t asked to pay. Sharma handles applications for plots, and ensures users agree to basic terms of use, including an agreement not to disturb the family or damage or neglect the property. In return, Gillespie asks only that his guests respect the land and each other. He provides water at no charge, though a moist summer has kept his irrigation pipes from being used.

Most plots measure about 350 square feet – 7 feet by 50 feet – and contain tomatoes, greens, cucumbers and mustard seeds. “It just amazes us how much produce they can get out of their gardens,” he said. “They come out with these huge, huge bags of produce.”

For Bhutanese elders who farmed wheat, barley, corn and grains in their native country, digging their hands in the soil on the sloped, hay-covered property, is a reminder of home.

“It makes them happy, and it brings a type of healing and satisfaction,” said Bhakta Darjee of Concord, who has maintained a garden for two seasons. “All around the grandparents and parents are staying home, and it makes it boring for them. When they come here, they feel happy, and they talk to each other and laugh a little bit.”

Everything he grows, his family eats, he said.

“It feels like we did our share. This is ours. We did this. Everyone likes that, because it’s a product from ourselves,” he said.

Demand continues to increase, and while Gillespie jokes there are “only so many acres,” he has already started clearing new plots for next summer. Next year, the garden will be renamed the New American Community Garden, Sharma said.

This is good news for people like Bishnu Kanal of Concord, who inherited a pumpkin-covered plot earlier this summer. He smiled as he crouched and ruffled the leaves of his cherry tomatoes.

“I usually come after three or five days. I have not gone to any of the stores to buy vegetables,” he said through a translator. He expects the Bhutanese community to continue to embrace the gardens. “This reminds us a lot of home,” he said.

What his peaceful and friendly guests take from the property, they return in life lessons for Gillespie and his three children, Ian, Beatriz and Yesenia. “They work hard, and the children come out and see them working in the sun, it shows a very strong work ethic,” Gillespie said.

“These people have become our friends, friends that we did not have before,” he said. “There are some we haven’t gotten to know yet, but we will.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@
cmonitor.com or on Twitter