Chuck Noona hills up potato plants with extra soil at the Lawrenceville Community Garden last month. (Photo by Frank Comstock.)

Combine the English nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow” with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s’ well-known line “How do I love thee, let me count the ways” and what do you get? The Lawrenceville Community Gardens on Route 206 north.

The community garden plots, sitting on two acres of land carved out of the former Cranstoun farm, which was acquired by the township in the late 1960s, have provided 50 years of productivity for town residents. Lawrence Township sold the land to the Lawrenceville School in 1997, with the school continuing the tradition of community gardens by donating the land to the township each year.

The National Gardening Association estimates a savings of about $100 for every 100 square feet of garden. Editors at todayshomeowner.com suggest a garden with 100 square feet per family member should be able to produce enough vegetables to feed the family through the growing season.

Not every square foot in any garden is planted to vegetables or fruits, so some realistic math is needed to estimate the savings for local residents using the Lawrenceville Community Gardens.

If just half of each plot at the Lawrenceville Community Gardens is used effectively, the gardeners could be collectively saving more than $20,000 per year when buying vegetables at the grocery story. Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the average family in the United States spends $750 a year on vegetables at grocery stores. Savings of $20,000 per year would mean around a million dollars in savings in today’s dollars in the 50 years Lawrenceville has sponsored these gardens for residents.

While there have been as many as 141 plots in past years, 2018 brings a reduction to 114 plots as trees along the sides of the land have affected growing conditions. The plots along the right-hand side and in the first row on the left side closest to Route 206 did not sell due to shade, said Nancy Bergen, township recreation director. Those rows were eliminated this year.

The remaining plots each measure 400 square feet, about the size of a standard two-car garage. That’s more than 45,000 square feet of garden space, a little over an acre, providing Lawrenceville residents the opportunity to get exercise, fresh air, and affording themselves and their families with the fruits (and veggies) of their labors.

Albert Hamm’s plot at the Lawrenceville Community Garden. (Photo by Frank Comstock.)

Albert Hamm of Lawrenceville, now in his 22nd year of using the community plots, acknowledges it’s a lot of work, but it is always worth the effort.

“I enjoy the process of growing vegetables very much,” Hamm says, adding “It’s always nice to be able to eat fresh produce from my garden for many months each year. I believe I learn something every year from my gardening experiences. Whenever possible, I incorporate the new knowledge into my planting techniques the following year.”

Hamm has been using a double plot for years, doing all the work himself. He tries to have something new every year, while sticking with his go-to crops which this year will include tomatoes, peas, carrots, lima beans, soybeans, green and Asian beans, regular and sweet potatoes, sweet peppers, lettuce, watermelons, cantaloupes, summer and winter squash, broccoli, kale, and Brussel sprouts.

“I always harvest much more than I need,” Hamm said. “I give away at least half of what I grow to friends and neighbors. When I was still working, I would take much of my excess produce to work. Now, I leave it for my neighbors or give it to friends I used to work with whenever we meet for lunch.” He added he has never tracked how much he saves by growing his own veggies.

Bill Burrell and Jeanne Mroczko may have the record for continuous planting as they have been using the same plot for more than 25 years. Mroczko said, “We augment and improve our soil every year and we try to rotate what we plant.” The couple uses leaves and seaweed in the fall, letting everything slowly break up and mix with the soil. They freeze some of their produce, but they give away a lot to friends and neighbors and consume the rest themselves as long as the season holds.

Tony Staltari is in his fifth year at the gardens with a double plot producing enough to feed himself, his wife and his son. Staltari gives away produce to friends and neighbors and strives to try something new each year. One of those new crops a few years ago was a blue potato. Now, his grandchildren look forward to having blue potato salad on special occasions.

Lawrence Township Manager Kevin Nerwinski said, “As a municipality, I think it is important to provide a wide spectrum of activities for all of the residents. Certainly, our community garden is one of a few activities that can be shared and enjoyed by all generations either by an individual, family or group. The process of planting, maintaining, harvesting and then preparing the food for consumption provides an extraordinarily fulfilling activity extending through the growing season.”

Lawrence’s Public Works Department trucks in compost at the beginning of the season, placing it in large piles throughout the garden area. For 2018, workers also tilled, graded, and staked out the plots. Water is available from a handpump on the north side of the plots and a water tank on a trailer is usually at the southwest corner during the growing season.

‘the kick for me is being able to give a dozen beautiful tomatoes to friends or neighbors.’

Experienced users of the community garden plots strongly suggest fencing the plots as deer and rabbits are known to wander through, especially at night and early in the morning. Some gardeners use the square foot method for small gardens in which they build small, one or two square foot boxes to hold dirt with a set number of plants in each box. Others mound up dirt in rectangles or circles for planting, while most plant directly in the ground, using the supplied compost to augment the soil.

Bergen sums up her feelings about the community gardens by saying they are a “place where residents of all different backgrounds can meet and share a common goal: gardening. There is a lot of social activity at the gardens. Everyone shares their ideas and helps each other out whenever they can. The gardens also promote a healthier lifestyle by growing nutritious fruits and vegetables. It is also a great way to stay physically active and enjoy the outdoors.”

Michael and Jim Livecchi are father and son gardeners using a plot at the gardens for the first time, although they have grown vegetables and herbs at home in the past. They are trying a new method for them, mounding the dirt up in rows, covering it in landscape fabric, and then cutting holes to insert the plants. Tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, and zucchini have already gone in with some space left over for ideas still to come.

“We don’t have a lot of room at home to grow all the tomatoes and peppers we want, so we’re trying the gardens this year,” said Michael Livecchi, a final year student at the Syracuse campus of the State University of New York.

Vicky Cross has used the community gardens for about 10 years, initially because she wanted to show her daughter the seed to table life cycle. Cross has kept gardening through the years because she enjoys it and is able to supply her own table as well as giving away food to others. Cross will grow “beets, peas, string beans, a few tomatoes, and flowers for color and for cutting,” this year. She will grow fall-hardy crops like zucchini and squash after the summer plants fade.

“I just give away to friends when I have too much,” Cross says. Even with sharing her bounty, Cross notes she can supply her vegetable needs for the entire summer without having to buy any of the crops she grows. She estimates her grocery store savings at several hundred dollars for the season.

Chuck Noona is in his 15th year at the gardens with plans for tomatoes, potatoes, yellow and red onions, red and green sweet peppers, Hungarian wax peppers, zucchini, and cucumbers. Noona grows enough produce on one plot to supply veggies throughout the season and into the fall for his family and still has veggies to give away. He purees some of his tomatoes and then freezes the puree. He also freezes whole tomatoes after peeling them and removing the stem and upper part of the core, using the frozen tomatoes in stews and soups throughout the winter.

“We supply our own table and the neighbors with tomatoes, potatoes, and zucchini in season,” Noona said. “The kick for me is being able to give a dozen beautiful tomatoes to friends or neighbors.”

As with most endeavors, there are some rules that have to be followed. Weed repellants are banned completely and gardeners are asked to limit use of fertilizer or insecticides that could affect neighboring plots. Residents are asked not to grow tall plants that could limit sun to the adjacent plots and plants from one plot can’t intrude on another plot. Weeding is required on a regular basis.

A few rules, some hard work, and watching the weather for the right balance of sun and rain add up to months of fresh veggies and fruit on Lawrence tables, food grown just down the road rather than on a farm hundreds of miles away or even in another country. The Lawrenceville Gardens embody the spirit of “Jersey Fresh.”