More than Just Plant Life Flourishes at the Community Growing Center

somerville community growing center

From picnics to yoga to a “Gathering of the Fairies,” there’s something for everyone at the Somerville Community Growing Center.

On an early summer afternoon, 12-year-old Eve Bellwood and her 11-year-old friend Leah Ackerman are hard at work at the Somerville Community Growing Center, pulling fuzzy purple clover blossoms from their stems and collecting them in a basket. Eve’s Mom, Aileen Bellwood, will make a medicinal tincture with them after they’re dried. “They were the winter clover crop for the garden,” explains Aileen, who teaches farming and gardening at Lesley University, “and it’s a large amount of clover for an urban environment, so I thought I’d grab the chance and collect them while we’re preparing the beds for summer.”

Aileen and Eve have been coming to the Community Growing Center for more than a decade. And while they say some elements have changed, there are many markers of happy memories in this space that has grown along with them. “I have so many pictures of the girls in that big tree in front,” Aileen smiles. “There’s a place where the bark is worn smooth from all the kids climbing there.”

“This is like our substitute backyard,” she adds. “We come once a week during the growing season, just to see what happens.”

Nestled on a small city plot behind Union Square on Vinal Avenue, the center has been quietly fostering growth for more than 20 years. The terraced quarter-acre includes a mini forest, a valley, a veggie garden, a welcome hut, a labyrinth and an outlook over the city—micro-environments that invite their own ecosystem of plants and critters along with human visitors.

For such a small-scale and unassuming space, the Growing Center’s calendar is as busy as a social butterfly. A group of Somerville High School students uses the garden as a classroom twice a week; on Tuesday evenings and Friday mornings there’s a playgroup in the space with opportunities for free play and nature-oriented, hands-on learning. Open Garden days for passersby and volunteers are on Saturdays. Red Fire Farm uses the space as their distribution point for locals who order their popular CSA farm share. During the summer, “Art in the Garden” camp happens daily. And dusk yoga classes offer an opportunity to unwind under the leaves throughout the warm months.

Here, there’s something going on all the time—cookbook swaps and potlucks, family sing-alongs, full moon labyrinth walks, composting workshops, pajama story times, movie nights, youth theatre groups, teddy bear picnics and more. The online calendar is updated regularly, and the SCGC website is well-maintained with features on regular happenings. Annual events like the Spring Garden Day bring old and new worlds together, with a maypole and Morse dancers presented in the Somerville-style, outdoor picnic festival spirit. At the Gathering of the Fairies, an event now organized by the Bellwood family, young ones flit between storytelling, face painting, fairy house building and wand-making. Come fall, the Harvest Festival will find SCGC friends and Somerville High School volunteers carving pumpkins and making fresh butter for generously donated local bread.

SCGC’s free and easy feel rests on the foundation of thoughtful design by board members and dedicated community leaders like Lisa Brukilacchio, vice president of the Friends of the Community Growing Center and the organization’s co-founder. She says she’s most grateful that “it’s been able to serve many people and many purposes during its life.” The organization “runs on a shoestring” Brukilacchio says, because “volunteers are our lifeblood.”

Brukilaachio and other board members and volunteers want to create opportunities for residents—especially young residents—to have direct learning experience in non-manicured nature while supporting Somerville’s cultural diversity. “It’s served as a model for outdoor classrooms and for citizen design,” she says, “a place that helps us see our urban environment differently and see ourselves differently.”

The list of locals who have contributed to the SCGC over the years goes on and on and on. Mayor Mike Capuano helped facilitate the transformation of the old Southern Junior High site into the Growing Center; Somerville High Vocational Tech students laid the stones in the labyrinth. Local families first planted fruit trees and veggie gardens, and these days, kindergarten classes who visit regularly contribute to the upkeep of the space. Cultivating the true essence of “organic” community projects, this is a place that embraces all of its neighbors and offers a real polyculture of events and opportunities.

The spirit of an early partnership with the Walnut Street Center, a nonprofit started by parents who were looking to support children with developmental disabilities who were aging out of the school system, has been re-born in new collaborations with Somerville High School students and teachers. The “Wednesday Watering Angels” are comprised of about five students in the high school’s Life Skills class, who also built and installed a raised bed and are looking forward to bringing some of their produce to the Somerville Mobile Farmer’s Market in the fall. “It’s an example of mutual benefit,” says Brukilacchio, “a program that is good for the community and good for the community-based organization.”  

Brukilaachio recalls a recent sing-along where a three-year old asked her what she was doing, quickly learned to identify the weeds she was pulling, helped for a few minutes and made friends with a bug who he introduced to a watermelon seed. He then meandered along to inspect the tiny pond. “This is the kind of experience that’s very precious in our urban growing spaces now,” she points out.

SCGC manages to bridge the somewhat tamed world of its garden with the less-manicured “urban wild” around its edges. “This is a space that’s used as an art center, a growing center, and has more biodiversity than the average urban park,” Brukilacchio says.

A recent grant for the SCGC will mean a redesign with the help of local landscape architects who use a permaculture lense, focusing attention on increasing food yield and sustainable urban agriculture opportunities, making gathering spaces more accessible and multi-functional, and improving water conservation throughout the site.

That’s important, because more new people are coming to the center all the time. Jacob Kramer, a newbie to the space, is enthusiastic as he turns over soil in the veggie bed for spring planting. “This is a great public space just to hang out and learn about gardening,” he says. After his girlfriend, also a volunteer, told him about the center, he helped with a wall-building project on the site and then became a volunteer himself. Although he accidentally harvested a few garlic scapes in his initial garden work, everyone understands that this is a place to learn and enjoy—and that there’s plenty for all.