HOWELL – Nestled on the corner of Adelphia and Squankum-Yellowbrook Roads are gardens soon to be brimming with tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, peas and even peanuts. A wooden pergola and benches, made by Boy Scout Troop #515 as part of an Eagle Scout Project, welcomes both beginner and experienced gardeners to their plots.
The Howell Organic Community Gardens (HOCG), a community project started by Dana Vargo, are open for the season.
Vargo said the gardens started out of a casual conversation with her landscaper about how the open space, at the time filled with scrubby trees, would be a great place to start a garden. She said it took about two years to get all the approvals from the town, obtain a lease and make sure the land was environmentally sound before starting to farm on it in 2014.
Now in its third season, the gardens have many returning customers – some as young as 10 years old – who purchase 4’ by 20’ or 4’ by 18’ plots to grow their choice of organic produce. Some people plant their own seeds and some buy plants, but everyone is responsible for coming back to the gardens to water and weed their plots throughout the growing season.
Planting season kicks off in the springtime and goes until October or November, weather permitting, but right now the gardens are sprouting with winter garlic, potatoes, cabbage and peas, all of which are cold weather crops.
“By June this place will be pretty green,” said Vargo.
Since the garden is organic, many people will plant chrysanthemum seeds to naturally deter pests from eating their plants. Pests are known to dislike the smell of the flower. Vargo said that often people will reach for a store bought pesticide like Sevin at the first sign of pests in their garden – but that it might be better to just wait it out.
“Now what you’ve done is you’ve just upset the whole balance of the system. So not only have you wiped out the bad stuff but you’ve also wiped out the good stuff,” said Vargo. “So now you have started that vicious cycle of not letting nature take its course and so now when the pests come back again – which they will – you’ve got to do the same thing over and over or you’ll get a different pest.”
She added that sometimes it can take a while for the problem to fix itself, but gardeners will eventually start seeing good bugs like ladybugs and praying mantis pods. “If you let nature take its course, the good will outweigh the bad.”
Besides stimulating a healthy environment, another reason Vargo started the gardens was to give back to the community.
That’s why at the end of 2015, she decided to establish the HOCG as a 501c3 and form a board. “Anything that we grow, we either use ourselves, for our own consumption, or we donate. We can’t sell for our own good – no roadside stand. If we do try to sell it, money has to come back into the garden.”
She also dedicates a portion of plots to PAR or Plant a Row for the Hungry, which encourages planters to grow an extra row of produce each year and donate the surplus to local food banks and soup kitchens. Surplus from the HOCG primarily goes to three charities: Joshua’s House in Farmingdale, the Howell Food Pantry and the Howell Senior Center. Last year, well over 1,000 pounds of produce was donated.
Vargo is on a mission to get more youth groups involved in the gardens as well. Out of the 48 plots that were available this year, two were donated to Girl Scouts groups and one to a boys’ 4-H group. Young people come in with their group leaders or Master Gardener volunteers to get their hands dirty, learn how to grow food organically and discover that not everything they eat comes from a grocery store.
But giving back goes both ways. Vargo credits much of the HOCG’s early success to the generosity of the community. Howell Township Department of Public Works ran water lines from across the street, hooked up a new water meter and spent two days digging and filling a ditch. Piping and hydrants were donated by Atlantic Irrigation and Waterworks, and then the piping was laid out by Farmingdale-based landscaper Zig Panek. “We would not be a garden right now without that help,” said Vargo.
She expects plots to be full this year, as they’re nearly at capacity now, and anticipates needing a waiting list in the near future. So far, word of mouth and a wooden sign out front have been the best marketing tools for getting new customers in the door.