CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — While the push to get a community garden on town-owned land in Clifton Park has been slowed to a walk, the one at St. Edward’s Catholic Church is beginning to produce a bountiful harvest.
The leafy green sprouts and meandering vines found within the 36 active plots are finally starting to produce potatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans, and rutabagas. One plot “owner” got the garden’s first tomato late last week.
“Steve told me I had a tomato as I was weeding and I didn’t even know it,” said the garden’s de facto leader Stan Zacharewicz. “If he hadn’t told me about it, I’d have missed it and gone home.”
The one-third of an acre parcel at the end of the church entrance drive at 569 Clifton Park Center Road is in full sun. As long as the individual plots are weeded regularly, fertilized, and watered with loving care it’s hard to imagine someone not having success.
“We get it rototilled in the spring at no cost to anyone, and I try and get everyone to have their plots cleared by Columbus Day so I can spread winter ryegrass on it,” Zacharewicz said. “It put nutrients back into the soil for next year.”
The St. Edward’s Garden Group is made up of an informal, ever-changing number of gardeners. Most are church members, but there’s no requirement that they are. Limiting notice of the plots to the church bulletin tends to limit the number of people aware of the activity but word of mouth among gardeners spreads fast.
Last Friday, Phil Woodrow, a Baptist, worked his plot alongside Zacharewicz, Al Czerpak, and Steve Valenti as all four weeded their plots. The kibitzing and gardening hints flew back and forth like a slow-motion badminton shuttlecock.
“I tell people I’m a Catholic six months each year,” Woodrow said.
To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the land was originally allotted for a community garden by the church hierarchy about 12 years ago. Zacharewicz took over the leadership role in 2015 when one of the original members stepped aside.
The parcel was put on hiatus in 2016 when the church began work on a worship center addition. It was brought back to life in the spring of 2018 after the addition opened.
“When we started up again some of the original folks dropped out,” Zacharewicz said. “There were a number who didn’t want to plant here anymore because they feared contamination from all the trucks during the construction. When we rototilled the soil that first time we brought up a lot of stuff.”
The parcel is divided up each spring into 42 plots that are 15 feet by 20 feet each. This year 36 plots have been planted. Six sit fallow due to a lack of gardeners. There is no charge to join the group, but the cost of fencing, which is highly recommended, and its installation is born by the plot owner as are the seeds and the labor.
A check of the plots late last week showed all were flourishing.
“I’ve got winter squash; buttercup, Hubbard, butternut and acorn, potatoes, and tomatoes,” Zacharewicz said. “It was a wet spring, and I’m sure it hindered a lot of the big farms, but this is all sand so we’re doing great.”
“I planted brussels sprouts, watermelon, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, and some flowers; zinnias, and marigolds to give the garden a community feel,” Czerpak said from beneath his wide-brimmed hat.
“Turnips, bush beans, pickling cucumbers, zucchini, squash, basil, okra, and 28 different tomato plants,” said a bemused Woodrow. “I’ve only been here two years, but I’ve been gardening for 70.”
Valenti, who is originally from Brooklyn, has found a calling in the community garden. He tends a total of four plots with all the produce dedicated to filling the food pantry at CAPTAIN CHS with fresh vegetables. In his spare time, he makes trips to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York in Latham for the organization.
“I planted summer squash, potatoes, two kinds of winter squash; butternut and acorn, zucchini squash, and a few tomato plants,” he said. “These guys give me a lot of help. You have to not be afraid to ask for help when you need it.”
Walking through a 33-foot by 20-foot two-plot garden of winter squash that is unfenced Valenti noted that the vegetable is so hard the animals won’t touch it.
“When these are ready, they will be brought to the CAPTAIN office in the [Clifton Park] Public Safety Building and given out and the rest will be stored,” he said. “They don’t require any cold storage.”
At one end of the parcel’s main walkway, Valenti had placed a five-gallon plastic bucket and a basket with the word CAPTAIN marked on each.
“It’s for anyone who wants to share a little of their bounty with the food pantry,” he said.
As he finished weeding his plot Zacharewicz pointed to a plastic tub of freshly dug potatoes.
“I had some potatoes at home that we weren’t eating fast enough, and they started to sprout,” he said. “I came over here, stuck them in the ground, and this is the result.”