When the Nightingale Community Garden opens for the season next month, the 125 plots, orchard, shed and gazebo won’t be the only staples there. To say coordinator Elnora Thompson is a gardening enthusiast is an understatement.
“I’m there just about every day. I even slip down after church on Sundays!” Thompson laughs. The 65-year-old green thumb’s schedule is booked with time in the garden, council meetings and gardening classes. She is also a member of Neighborhood Watch, a quilter and a Kit Clark Fit-4-Life participant.
Originally from Greenwood, Miss., Thompson worked on her grandfather’s farm, but her knack for gardening and home canning stems from another source.
“Been gardening since I was a kid,” she says. With a smile, she adds, “My momma.”
A resourceful woman, Thompson’s mother had all 14 children picking fruits and vegetables and would can them for later use. Thompson does the same now – tomatoes for pizza and pasta sauce, overripe fruit for jams and jellies.
She moved from Mississippi to California, then Chicago and finally arrived in Boston in 1967. When she moved to Dorchester, the house and yard had to be de-leaded. The Boston Food Project tilled the yard for garden use.
“It’s a big ol’ plot of love down there,” she says. Currently, she’s growing spinach, collard greens, bok choy, peas, mint, lemon balm, some flowers and herbs.
“If there’s something in the book you haven’t heard of, I grow it,” she laughs. “Anything weird, I grow.”
She has grown beets, tomatoes and beans of all different colors, miniature corn, “walking stick” kale, Chinese cabbage, Swiss chard and her favorite, sweet potatoes, to name just a few.
On a trip to Ireland in 2006, Thompson envied the huge vegetables her best friend’s uncle grew on his farm. She would order the “most incredible” vegetable soup everywhere they went (she is gluten-free and met a bad piece of meat in the 1980s, prompting a complete avoidance ever since).
“So now I’ll never take another vacation. This is my vacation,” she smiles, tapping on a map of Nightingale. “This is gonna be just Dorchester’s pride and joy.”
In 1999, Thompson retired from the phone company. In her 32 years, the company evolved from New England Telephone to Bell Atlantic to Verizon.
“I never understood why people say they go home and they never have anything to do,” she marvels. “I’m always busy. People come up to me and say, ‘You’re never home.’ I say, ‘I have things to do!’”
“I didn’t go home to do nothing. I went home and started community work.”
With her infectious laugh and buoyant personality, Thompson is ready for Nightingale’s opening day the second week in June. Great progress has been made since she first set foot in 512 Park St., overgrown and littered with trash and used needles. Dorchester Gardenlands owned the property at the time.
“What a surprise I found when I went down there. I thought, ‘Is this lady kidding me? Is this really a garden?’ Weeds were up over your head. I mean, it was a mess. They hadn’t taken care of it.”
Thompson got help from the gardeners established there, cutting grass down, clearing garbage and calling in the Department of Public Health to till the lead out of the soil. Season after season, the space improved; healthy compost, a water source and more plots replaced the garbage, needles and weeds.
The Boston Natural Areas Network, a highly respected citywide organization, took ownership of the Nightingale garden in 2006 and has recently completed an aggressive improvement project at the 1.5 acre site, which is the largest community garden in the neighborhood.
Local food pantries, organizations and farmers markets will receive homegrown Dorchester produce this summer. There is a plot for 450 Washington St. and one for the Haitian American Public Health Initiatives, Inc. (HAPHI) in Mattapan. Gardeners will not only decrease their own need for grocery store runs, but also help their community.
“People don’t realize - this is like a goldmine,” she notes.
Nightingale has hosted students from the Lee School, City Year and Food Project volunteers and children from local youth programs to teach them about sustainable and organic food.
“I love kids in the garden because a lot of times, kids don’t know where food comes from,” Thompson explains.
As coordinator, Thompson has taken on more than just weeds but she remains steadfast.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in this community and gardening is my passion,” she says. “I just love this stuff. This is going to be our flagship garden.”