Food Project offers help to garden builders

As part of its ongoing efforts to increase local food production in urban areas, the Food Project's Build-a-Garden program is now accepting applications for the 2008 growing season. In its second year, the Build-a-Garden program plans to install 75 raised-bed gardens throughout the Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods.

"We're trying to help people in Boston grow their own food," said Kathleen Banfield, the Food Project's urban education and outreach coordinator. "Raised bed gardens are good for urban gardening," she said, since they can be installed on top of pavement or contaminated soil, as long as there is adequate sunlight.

The Food Project is a youth and community sustainable food education program that farms on several formerly vacant lots on the western edge of Dorchester near Dudley Street. They offer teens summer jobs there and on a 31-acre farm in Lincoln, Mass.

Banfield said the Build-A-Garden program started through the Food Project's urban education outreach program in Dorchester, where "tons of Cape Verdean gardeners were growing directly in the soil," which was full of lead.

The program faces challenges when it comes to recruitment, Banfield said. Ideally, candidates for the raised beds would be selected in the winter months so the building can begin in late March, but "it's hard for people to get their head around the idea while it's still cold," she said.

"We want to reach out to all sorts of people," Banfield said, which is why the Build-a-Garden program is now working with the Department of Transitional Assistance to recruit and educate potential gardeners. "Once the barriers are broken down we see a huge response," Banfield said.

Last year, Build-a-Garden installed 62, 8-foot-by-4-foot raised bed gardens throughout Dorchester, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. Gardeners receive soil, compost, seeds, and transplants with their bed, as well as a grower's guide outlining what to plant and when. Training sessions teach growers how to plant and maintain their gardens as well. The program uses square-foot gardening, Banfield said, which maximizes space and food production. During the growing season, "people should be able to eat something from the garden every day," Banfield said.

One raised bed was installed last spring at the Dorchester House, to be used in conjunction with their Well Done! Cooking Class for overweight children.

"We teach by doing," said Mary Lynch, a pediatric nutritionist who leads the program. One group of students plants the garden for the next group of incoming students to harvest. "We're trying to make the connection with people young and old between healthy food and a healthy environment," Lynch said. "It's really fun to see kids connect with the earth." The Dorchester House will be getting three more raised bed gardens this year as they "grow the program along with the gardens," Lynch said.

So far, Banfield said they have only received around 30 applications for raised bed gardens, leaving another 45 up for grabs. To apply, contact Kathleen Banfield at 617-442-1322, or download an application at thefoodproject.org.