When a huge community garden was threatened, the volunteers took over

Emily Hayes of the New Hampshire Division of Land and Forests and Brad Cilley, treasurer for Russell-Shea Growers, walk in a plot at the community garden off Clinton Street in Concord on Tuesday. The state has transferred operation to the non-profit Russell-Shea Growers.

Emily Hayes of the New Hampshire Division of Land and Forests and Brad Cilley, treasurer for Russell-Shea Growers, walk in a plot at the community garden off Clinton Street in Concord on Tuesday. The state has transferred operation to the non-profit Russell-Shea Growers. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Emily Hayes of the New Hampshire Division of Land and Forests and Brad Cilley of the newly formed Russell-Shea Growers, below, walk in a plot at the community garden off Clinton Street in Concord where tons of vegetables and flowers are grown each year.

Emily Hayes of the New Hampshire Division of Land and Forests and Brad Cilley of the newly formed Russell-Shea Growers, below, walk in a plot at the community garden off Clinton Street in Concord where tons of vegetables and flowers are grown each year. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

A drone photo taken in June of 2021 captures what the community garden along Birch Street in Concord has long meant to local growers who rent plots.

A drone photo taken in June of 2021 captures what the community garden along Birch Street in Concord has long meant to local growers who rent plots. Don Himsel

Tomatoes grown in plots for the Friendly Kitchen in Concord, part of the harvest raised for the soup kitchen by volunteers.

Tomatoes grown in plots for the Friendly Kitchen in Concord, part of the harvest raised for the soup kitchen by volunteers. Russell-Shea Garden—Courtesy

One of many plots at the community garden in Russell-Shea State Forest in west Concord.

One of many plots at the community garden in Russell-Shea State Forest in west Concord. NH Forest and Lands—Courtesy

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 11-11-2023 1:30 PM

One of the biggest farms in the Concord area, a site that annually produces tons of vegetables, fruits and flowers, changed hands this year but even fans of local agriculture probably didn’t hear about it.

That’s because it is not exactly a farm. It’s a garden, but a super-sized one.

The 10-acre site within the Russell-Shea State Forest in west Concord has been home to a huge community garden for decades, renting out 176 different garden plots, some as big as 50 feet by 50 feet, to any New Hampshire resident for a small fee. It’s the largest community garden in the state and might be the largest in New England, and has become something of a community.

“There are people who literally spend a good portion of their day here, tending their garden, chatting with other gardeners,” said Emily Hayes, a land surveyor technician with the Division of Forest and Lands.

“We have people who live in apartments who get a plot, and this is their yard,” said Brad Cilley.

Until this year the Division of Forest and Lands ran the operation, next to CenterPoint Church on a dirt road that connects Clinton Street and Iron Works Road, but issues with funding and staff meant it couldn’t continue. The gardeners were told they had to figure something out or the operation would shut down.

“We looked for over a year for another non-profit to take it over but with no luck. Eventually, we went to the state and said how about if we create a new non-profit?” said Cilley during a recent visit to the site.

The result is Russell-Shea Growers, which was created in April with a 10-person board. Cilley, who has long tilled a plot here (he fills two freezers with vegetables from it every year), is treasurer.

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The gardens are not an allotment – that is, people do not have ownership of specific plots but must sign up to rent them each year. While there’s no guarantee, many people have rented the same plot for years.

For information, check their website at rsgrowers.com/. There’s a waiting list for available plots next year.

Russell-Shea Growers were formed not only to keep alive a tradition that stretches for more than a half-century – the area was the kitchen garden for the nearby state hospital before it was a community garden – but to expand its mission and operation.

Two plots have previously been set aside to raise food for the Friendly Kitchen, the soup kitchen in Concord, but that will expand to four plots, Cilley said. Volunteers will provide seeds, plants, grow the food, and transport it.

The group also wants to expand education outreach through organizations like cooperative extension, using the gardens as a way to teach people about the realities of modern nutrition. “I’m a firm believer that everybody should know how food gets on their table,” said Cilley, who grew up in a dairy farm family.

For most people, however, the plots will continue to serve as recreation for gardeners who don’t have the land – some people grow flowers – but also as a source of fresh food and cheaper food, even food security during hard times.

Cilley said the gardens bring in about $3,000 a year from fees. About half of that goes to liability insurance premiums, while the rest is spent cleaning up material left behind by gardeners. The biggest trash problem here, as in much of the world, is plastic, particularly tarps and landscape fabric, which help crops grow by keeping down weeds. Cracking down on trash without alienating gardeners can be a tricky proposition, they noted.

Long-term, the biggest drawback to the site is the lack of a water supply. That wasn’t a problem this wet year but Cilley said he trucked 600 gallons a week to the Friendly Plots during the dry start of last summer. Connecting it to the city’s water supply or drilling a well would require a large capital campaign.

The 561-acre Russell-Shea State Forest was transferred in 1972 from the Department of Health and Welfare to the Department of Resources and Economic Development, which is now the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Forests & Lands is a division within DNCR.