Each spring, about 20 families, swaddled in raincoats and fleece, don their rubber boots and brave the changeable April weather to begin rousing a little corner of Zenda Farms Preserve. These hardy souls will continue to return to this patch of earth, through spring rains and summer heat. Working early in the morning and late into the evening, until the last leaves fall from the trees and the winter rye has been sown. These individuals are not professional farmers, though their annual crop yields are impressive; they are the Zenda Community Gardeners, an all-volunteer force, working to nurture the land and each other.
Started in 2009, the Zenda Community Garden was created by TILT’s Executive Director, Jake Tibbles (then Stewardship Director), Lori Wilson Arnot, (long-time TILT member), and members of the Thousand Islands Young Leaders Organization (TIYLO). Hearing that the community garden at Lonsway Hill Apartments, now a Parkstead property, was dissolving, the fledgling group felt that there would be a void in the community. After researching many styles of community gardening, they settled on what they affectionately call, ‘family style’ gardening.
Rather than parceling off independent plots, the Zenda Community Garden was designed to bring participants together in one shared space with a shared workload. Gardeners would volunteer to care for different crops and chores, resulting in a more balanced division of labor and better crop yields. With a grant from the Northern New York Community Foundation, hand-me-down tools and a small shed from the original Lonsway garden, 15 families signed up to join the Zenda Community Garden in its first season–and it worked.
Fast forward to 2019, and the Zenda Community Garden celebrated its tenth season. With another bountiful harvest of community and connection, the gardeners were looking toward the next summer with plans to expand the raised beds and dreams of developing a composting program. The promise of spring and returning to their little patch of earth came to a screeching halt with the Covid-19 Pandemic.
While the rest of the world seemed to have been turned upside down, outdoor spaces quickly became a place of refuge and recreation. From flying kites to walking dogs, TILT’s public Preserves were flush with visitors. And through it all, the garden grew.
In 2020, a year with sharp declines in all things social, TILT saw 25 families join the garden. Lori Arnot stated, “it has benefited the community and done what it's supposed to do - bring people together and be an anchor.”
Behind masked faces, gardeners pulled weeds and harvested carrots, all while catching up with neighbors, safely spaced several rows away. The garden was one of the few public places where you could still hear laughter and feel camaraderie. It was one of the few places that still felt like the River.
Through the seasons, the Zenda Community garden has continued to evolve and grow. Charlene Greene, Volunteer Garden Coordinator, remembers the early years and milestones with fondness. From the construction of the Kids Corner in 2013 to outgrowing the original shed and taking over the Turkey House in 2018, she recalls numerous expansions and changes.
When the drip irrigation system was installed by Chapin Living Waters, the gardeners rejoiced at the thought of no longer needing to hand water the crops. In 2017, the old calving pen was converted into a pumpkin patch, with beautiful round gourds swelling beneath a jungle of tangled vines. The pumpkins proved to be a big hit and gardeners look forward to watching the engulfing vines produce unique varieties each year, from the palm-sized ‘Jack-Be-Littles’ to the rotund classic, ‘Atlantic Giant’.
Even with the challenges that come with the Garden, including squash bugs and failed crops, finding joy in the work itself has always been at the heart of Charlene’s connection to the garden, “One of my favorite memories is of the fall day when we planted our first garlic crop. Everyone was peeling, sorting, and planting each clove. I realized that it’s all about sharing the knowledge and working side-by-side.”
Charlene is getting ready to enter her tenth season with the Zenda Community Garden. From her winter home in Sackets Harbor she eagerly awaits the day when she can begin starting the seeds for the garden, “It’s too early to start now, but soon. Each spring I turn my dining room into a greenhouse!”
Now, entering its twelfth season, the Zenda Community Garden has cemented itself as a staple of the River communities. When Tara James and her husband moved to Wellesley Island, she didn’t have a garden at her new home, “I love to garden and I didn’t have my own garden [on the island] and it was a good way to meet people when I first moved here.” Since joining the garden, James says she’s learned a lot but that it’s the people that keep her coming back, “My dad has always been a big gardener but I learned a lot from Charlene and the people are great. It’s about community, the people make this garden.”
When asked about the future, Lori thinks back to the past, recounting an evening in the garden surrounded by members and their families, “it was spring and the adults were all planning and working, the kids were running around and playing and it just shows me that in this place, we can all be together working on something that brings value to our tables and strengthens community bonds.”
What began as a solution to a void in the community has grown into much more than many of the early participants ever expected. Seasons filled with soil stained hands, Creeping Charlie, sun-ripened cherry tomatoes, and earthworms gave way to connection, friendship, and a sense of shared responsibility for this patch of earth. Members who joined out of practical necessity, stayed for the connection and in a world where we feel increasingly divided, maybe we all just need to get our hands a little dirty in the garden.
[Invitation to join: Feeling inspired by this journey? The Thousand Islands Land Trust invites you to join the Zenda Community Garden by visiting https://tilandtrust.org/explore/garden , emailing email@example.com or calling 315-686-5345 to get involved.]
By Shannon Walter
Shannon Walter serves as TILT's Education and Outreach Coordinator, she holds a B.S. in Art History from the University of Maryland and a Master’s of Education from Purdue University. With a career in education and the nonprofit sector, Shannon comes to TILT with experience in youth programming and outreach development, where she is responsible for planning and organizing TILTreks and Events, manages the Kenneth Deedy Environmental Internship Program, Education and Outreach Internship Program, and the Watercraft Inspection Steward Program, and promotes TILT through marketing and outreach. When she's not at work, Shannon enjoys hiking and traveling with her husband, Bryan.
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