About 24 years ago, a group of Vineyard gardeners with no place to garden began to brainstorm. The dilemma: how to have a working garden when life leaves little time or energy to do so? How to garden when the backyard is too small? And how to spread the gospel that food grown at home tastes better? The solution: provide a community garden.
But the problem remained: where to do it? The group found a plot of land on New York avenue in Oak Bluffs and planned to build a greenhouse. They named themselves the Community Solar Greenhouse, which was quickly shortened to COMSOG. On Sept. 25, 1983 the group held its first fall festival with live music, games and food — greenhouse chowder, compliments of students at the high school, homemade mead and fresh apple cider. That afternoon, the group broke the ground for the greenhouse and after much fund-raising, they completed it in 1984. The fall festival became a regular event.
Sunday marks the 24th annual fall festival. “I just made a batch of hot pepper jelly that I plan to sell,” said greenhouse president Thalia Scanlan last week. The festivities, including music by the Vineyard Brass Ensemble and spinning demonstrations, begin at noon. Linda Jean’s restaurant has donated soup. Raffle tickets for a variety of tantalizing prizes including a gift certificate to Vineyard Gardens and one to the Lambert’s Cove Inn will be sold; the drawing will take place at 3 p.m. “It’s just fun,” said Mrs. Scanlan. “I think of it like a block party.”
The greenhouse continues to offer Islanders a year-round opportunity to grow their own organic plants and food while teaching others. The organization boasts nearly 200 members and has only one paid staff member, greenhouse manager Chuck McBride. Together, members are growing 35 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 15 varieties of heirloom peppers and heirloom eggplants. They cultivate a wide variety of greens including lettuce, spinach and chard. Herbs grow alongside flowers. But unlike other farms and markets on the Vineyard, the community garden operates as a learning tool rather than a food supplier. “We are not a farm market,” said Mrs. Scanlan. “We are there as a community resource.”
Any novice or experienced gardener can join for an annual fee. “Members come and do work and then can buy the produce at a reduced price,” explained Mrs. Scanlan. “We encourage people to come in and volunteer for an hour or two.” The group makes any unsold produce available to the public and the volunteers work year round. Seeding begins in the greenhouse in January and during the winter months the place becomes a garden oasis. “It’s nice to get in there when it’s snowy, rainy and crummy,” Mrs. Scanlan said. Once spring rolls around, there is never a dull moment. “There’s always something to do like plant seeds, water the plants, or weed,” Mrs. Scanlan said.
While homegrown food is part of the mission of the organization, so is creating a learning atmosphere for Islanders. The greenhouse offers workshops on wreath making and drying flowers. It hosts different Island groups such as the Day Break crew and the councils on aging on a regular basis. It also works closely with students at the high school, who sometimes use the space as a concert forum and helped to install the skin that now covers the greenhouse. “I believe it’s really important because it allows people who love gardening, but who don’t have the space, time, or energy to do so, to take part in a group organization where we learn from each other,” Mrs. Scanlan said.
Over the years, the mission of the organization has evolved. “When the COMSOG was founded, there were really very few places you could buy fresh produce,” said Mrs. Scanlan. “At that time, the mission was more about self-sufficiency.” Now, along with hosting various workshops, the greenhouse is working with different Island organizations including Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and The Nature Conservancy to introduce more native plants and flowers to Vineyard growers. “We work hard and try our best to do what we can,” Mrs. Scanlan said.
Jim Early has been a member for nine years. “We’re constantly learning and sharing ideas,” he said. His wife, Carole, has organized the fall festival for the past five or six years and looks forward to Sunday’s gathering. “It’s a fun event,” she said. “It’s like, welcome to fall!”
This is the final Farm and Field column for the year.