Our City, Our Gardens: Community Gardening in Greenwich

Community gardens have been around for as long as communities have existed. On the North American continent, many Indigenous First Nations owned and worked land in common. Several eastern nations, such as the Haudenosaunee and Lenape peoples, viewed women as the workers and keepers of the land, a belief that underpinned their matriarchal cultures. In Europe, feudal societies had communal plots that generated the food supply for the serfs themselves, smaller than the fields they worked to produce the crops due to the lord of the manor. When Europeans first colonized New England, collective farming was often the only chance of survival, given the lack of laborers and experience, and even these efforts would likely have failed without the help of native neighbors. This is, in general, the story of Greenwich’s first communal gardens, but throughout its history the people of Greenwich have continued to come together to plant and harvest for the common good.

Franklin Simon’s Victory Garden, circa 1940. Employees of the Franklin Simon department store gardened this plot (believed to be the site of the current Greenwich Library car park) for food and for the Greenwich Nursery. They grew lettuce, green beans, peas, carrots and squash. Collection of the Greenwich Historical Society.

Greenwich continued to be a farming community well into the early decades of the 20th century, with many estates maintaining vegetable gardens even as they turned their farms into pleasure grounds. These vegetable gardens were expanded rapidly with the advent of the First World War. The 1917-1918 War Gardens were created in response to fears that the food supply would be depleted due to destruction overseas and the loss of agricultural workers as the men marched into the trenches . . Private land was reallocated to growing fruit and vegetables, some of which was processed by the Greenwich Canning Kitchen to be sent to the front lines, and land on the outskirts of town was offered to community members who wanted contribute to the cause but have not done so. not the place. Local newspapers carried encouraging articles and letters from the readers, including one titled “Keep a Toad” which urged gardeners to keep the “patriot” working to defend plants from insects, and another titled “Raise Sheep on Lawns”, which insisted that the people of Greenwich did not have to tear up their beautiful lawns to produce food, but rather kept a flock of sheep to cut grass and provide meat for cooking.

This list of donors and this introduction come from a report on the mission and productivity of the Greenwich Canning Kitchen. The report highlights the costs and comparative advantages of the operation and thanks the donors for their patriotism. Interestingly, all but two of the donors were women, although they were referred to by their husband’s name. Collection of the Greenwich Historical Society.

See more information about the history of agriculture in Greenwich

Collective gardening and preservation became a patriotic duty, strengthening community bonds and inspiring incredible ingenuity and sacrifice. Dr. Oliver Huckel, pastor of the Second Congregational Church, recalled both the hardships and the triumphs in a talk at the 1932 annual meeting:

“The hard times of the World War…with their strenuous patriotic efforts and their savings sacrificed for ‘conservation’; their war parades, their war garden parties, their patriotic mass meetings, their fundraising campaigns; sewing, knitting and gossip parties; ‘give until it hurts’; installment purchases of Liberty Bonds; eating gutta percha biscuit and oleomargarine-lubricated plaster of paris pancakes to send the real stuff to the soldiers, who ultimately didn’t get much of it — and all that; how well we remember everything!

– Daily News-Graphic, December 10, 1932, “Dr. Huckel’s Story of Seventeen Year Changes”

Even as Dr. Huckel delivered his speech, the community was again tested by the Great Depression, and would be tested even more with the advent of World War II.

Vegetable garden guides were popular pamphlets of the war garden era. They gave gardening beginners exactly the information they needed to make their plots work. Collection of the Greenwich Historical Society.
The Greenwich News and Chart published these forms in the August 20, 1918, issue of the journal. In addition to obtaining an accurate product count, these forms urged townspeople to do their civic duty and contribute to the cause.

The stock market crash of 1929 had catastrophic effects for the entire nation. Millions of people have been left unemployed and homeless, roaming the country in search of work and shelter. Bread and soup lines were common in urban areas, and families everywhere tightened their savings to try to hold on to their homes and livelihoods. The people of Greenwich, perhaps inspired by the successes of their war gardens, have banded together to nurture their community. Overseen by a town committee and aided by the Westchester-Fairfield Horticultural Society, more than 20 estates grew vegetables in their gardens to distribute to those in town who were struggling to make ends meet. Other estates loaned acres of their land to candidates who planted and tilled the plots using city-provided seed and then shared the resulting harvest. The local Boy Scout Troop 15 has also contributed: the troop has started its own garden at 118 Pemberwick Road to grow vegetables which will be distributed by the Byram Parent-Teacher Association to families in need of financial support. Commonly grown produce included cabbages, tomatoes, carrots, beets, and eggplant.

After the Second World War, the country withdrew slightly into itself with the explosion of the suburbs and the rise of the private family home. Community gardens would not gain popularity in Greenwich until the 1960s. Armstrong Court Community Garden was started in 1963 with instructions from local garden clubs, primarily Hortulus. The Armstrong Court plots served the tenants of the Armstrong Court Housing Association project, and although interest fluctuated, a few residents still gardened there decades later when the garden was renovated. Since the revitalization in 2009, when local volunteers and students helped cut overgrown brush, pick up litter and clean up the creek that runs alongside the garden, it has seen a resurgence in popularity. Greenwich Community Gardens, the organization that oversees the gardens, has expanded to include Bible Street Gardens in Cos Cob, and plans and manages volunteers in the Nathaniel Witherell Garden, which grows produce for residents’ meals.

From the earliest days to modern times, members of the Greenwich community have sought to serve and connect through gardening. These community places have seen the city through some of the toughest times in American history, nourishing body and soul through good food and community spirit. The rise of the local and organic food movements has reminded us, more than ever, that we are what we eat, but the continued legacy of community gardens reminds us that the people who join us at our plots and at our tables are equally important.