Unused land can be an eyesore or an opportunity, depending on who you ask. In Bristol Borough, some are viewing vacant space through rose-colored glasses.
“Four years ago, this whole thing was grass,” Doug Braun, a social studies teacher at Snyder-Girotti, said of Bristol High School’s courtyard. “By the end of the summer, every inch will be covered.”
Braun helps moderate the Bristol High School Garden Club. Under the guidance of Braun, science teacher Bobby Moyer and ninth-grade teacher Maria Doherty, students have taken to the dirt in the courtyard and built one of the area’s most impressive gardens.
You have to be careful where you walk. Garden boxes, herb walls, potted seedlings, a makeshift greenhouse, a tomato tunnel — it’s like an obstacle course of greenery. As the season moves forward, the courtyard will be even more packed with fruit, herbs, produce and busy gardeners.
If you ask students why they got involved, the answers are usually the same.
“She forced us to do it last year,” sophomore Gabrielle Quici joked and pointed to Doherty.
If you ask them why they’re back again this year, they might just smile.
Doherty teaches a reading literacy course. For the class, students do a project on food origins, where they choose between a research paper and a hands-on project in the garden.
Some spend time in there and move on, and some, like Quici and fellow sophomore Gabrielle Vaughn, stick around the following year.
Braun has even gotten some of his eighth-graders to help out after school. What started as an extra-credit opportunity turned into a routine for three of his students.
Last Tuesday, Jacob Frey, Dylan Patti and Michael Stevens were putting down compost to prepare for the planting of summer squash, cucumbers, zucchini and other vegetables.
“Part of it is getting used to the high school,” Patti said. “Some of us are going to be here next year.”
Doherty and Braun secured grants through the years to keep the project going. It takes some savvy thinking to work out the nickels and dimes. Doherty writes to seed companies, and they send back more than she can handle. Braun used to do construction work on the side, and is able to build most of the things they need.
“I never grew a plant in my life before four years ago,” Braun said. “This has really taken on a mind of its own.”
The same could be said of Bristol’s other large-scale garden, which popped up just a few blocks away.
The Adams Hollow Community Garden nearly doubled in size in its second year. The garden began as members of the Garden Club of Bristol Borough became more interested in growing fruits and vegetables. Previously, it was more about beautifying the town with flower beds and other plants.
The garden took root at the former tennis courts near the Bristol Lagoon at Prospect and Jefferson streets. In the years before, the courts had been vacant.
“It’s gotten bigger. I would say 95 percent of those boxes are taken, if not more,” Paul Stillwagon, one of the members who helped start the garden, said.
Stillwagon built about 60 garden boxes last year, and has about 40 more to build for this season. Braun even brought some students to the garden so they could learn how to build them.
The connection doesn’t end there. Students donated some of their seedlings to the community garden, where members planted them in their individual garden boxes. Others were taken home by students or sold at the school’s plant sale, which cycles proceeds back into the gardening program.
Stillwagon has also committed to building a learning center at Adams Hollow. He will cut logs as seats for teachers, librarians, students and others to use the garden as an outdoor learning space.
This all contributes into a vision that Doherty and Garden Club Chairwoman Donna McCloskey have talked about before: a community that uses its open space to feed itself.
“You could be walking down Mill Street and be like, ‘Oh look, a tomato,’ ” Braun joked.
That vision is years away in reality, but the way these projects are growing, it no longer seems impossible.
“If there’s an empty space in a community, someone should be hopping on it. These should be popping up everywhere,” Stillwagon said. “It’s a no-brainer.”