WHEN HE IMMIGRATED from Italy to the US, Giovanni Martines left behind his family, his house, and his vineyard. “I left behind everything there,” Martines said. He sought a piece of land to grow something in the United States.
Martines, then working at an engineering firm in Allston, discovered Herter Community Garden, which is located inside Herter Park in Allston along the banks of the Charles River. After four years on a waiting list, Martines got his plot of land in 2005.
Today, Martines, 75, is retired and comes to the community garden almost every day. On a recent day, he pointed out pumpkins, kale, and broccoli, the few items still growing in his plot at the end of October. “It’s not just my pastime,” Martines said. “It’s my life. I come here almost every day to work in summertime, to meet with friends here.”
But Martines says that life he enjoys is now threatened. A plan by the Department of Conservation and Recreation to move the Allston community garden to a different section of the park is drawing fierce opposition from the gardeners, many of whom say a garden full of perennial plants can’t just be picked up and moved.
Standing in his garden plot, Damon Krukowski of Cambridge points to a unique species of rhubarb, the descendant of a specimen that dates to Victorian times, purchased from a grower who has since retired. He shows a visitor okra grown from seeds he and his wife, who are musicians, brought from Japan. There’s sorrel, which is one of his favorites. The perennial plants grow back year after year.
“You can’t move this,” Krukowski said.
His wife, Naomi Yang, is equally insistent. “You can’t move 50 years of people’s labor, of a community that’s grown up over 50 years,” she said.
The gardeners say the move being proposed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation will spell the end of a vibrant, 45-year-old garden that has provided physical and spiritual nourishment for immigrants, seniors, and residents of the surrounding communities. There are 70 plots in the garden today, each with one or two gardeners. Members pay $40 a year for a plot. The garden still has a three to four-year waiting list to join.
“What’s developed there, in addition to 45 years of organic soil being worked and reworked by generations of gardeners, is a remarkable community that cuts across many lines,” Krukowski said. “It’s a space where at last count we had 22 languages and places of origin included in the garden.”
The Department of Conservation and Recreation announced its plan at a meeting in September as part of a larger discussion of a master plan to revitalize Herter Park, a 60-acre park that includes a playground, boathouse, kayak rental, amphitheater, and vacant museum space.
At that meeting, which was held via Zoom, Rob Adams, a landscape architect hired by DCR, told participants that there are currently two community gardens in different parts of the park. The plan would combine the two gardens into a single location by creating a new space for one of the gardens next to the other. That would allow the gardens to share things like compost and mulch piles, and let the gardeners socialize. The spot where the Herter Community Garden is today would be turned into a lawn to open up a view of the river for guests walking between a parking lot and the amphitheater.
In an email, DCR officials said the goal of the plan is to make Herter Park more welcoming and user-friendly by improving access, maintenance, and environmental conditions, and finding better uses for the buildings. The agency said moving the garden would provide ecological benefits, greater access to waterfront public space for all visitors, increased accessibility, and better park management.
In the new garden location, DCR has committed to installing raised beds to reduce nitrogen runoff; building infrastructure like paths, fencing and water; and providing parking.
The garden has changed over the years. Frank Soave, who got a plot there 46 years ago when he was living in Brighton without space to garden at home, recalls the chicken wire that used to ring the garden before the chainlink fence. He also remembers the gardeners pumping water from the Charles River. His children grew up visiting the garden; now he brings his granddaughter.
Jackie Mow, a filmmaker from Cambridge, said when she started gardening there 24 years ago, the gardeners were mostly Italian, Russian, and Irish. Then it began attracting Chinese and South Asian gardeners, and more recently, immigrants from Bangladesh and India. “It’s become this small community of very diverse people, different ages, genders, everything,” Mow said.
She pointed out plots belonging to Chinese gardeners featuring trellises, bitter melons, squash, and pumpkins. A particular Italian gardener, she said, is known for his amazing tomatoes.
Allston resident Brent Whelan, 69, has had a plot there for eight or nine years, and his wife has gardened there for more than 30. If DCR moved the garden, he said, most of the older gardeners will not be able to put the effort into rebuilding what has taken them years to cultivate. “I would not feel I had the strength to start all over again making a garden plot from scratch,” Whelan said.
The gardeners also say the newly proposed spot will be harder to cultivate than the existing garden, which has been nourished in organic soil for decades.
Eleanor Jewett, who serves as the gardeners’ liaison to DCR, said the proposed new plot is uneven, the soil is not right, and it would have to be cleared of invasive species. It is more remote than the current site, which is near a parking lot in a well-populated area bounded by pedestrian walkways. Jewett said she often gardens early in the morning, and would worry about safety in a more remote spot. “As a woman, that’s the biggest worry I have, being alone there with no one around,” she said.
Jewett said she was shocked to hear about the plan a day before it was publicly announced. She is frustrated that DCR gave the gardeners just weeks to comment, and did not consult with them before releasing the proposal. “We didn’t feel much like stakeholders,” she said.
A public comment period on the park is open through Friday, and DCR officials plan to meet with the gardeners at the garden on Monday.