COVENTRY — The Coventry Community Garden truly is the epitome of a community space.
“Any opportunity to build community is always something our department wants to do,” Director of Coventry Human Services Bob Robillard said Friday, standing in the garden as around him master gardeners, local middle school students and staff from The Trust, the insurance group covering Coventry, all toiled away in preparation for the growing season.
“But really,” he continued, “the goal is to have people who would never otherwise meet—here, we’ve got people working in an insurance company and then kids who are in school—to have them work together on a project is huge.”
Robillard founded the community garden program 11 years ago alongside master gardener Gail Tatangelo, and it’s since doubled in size.
The garden, a fenced-in plot across the street from the town hall, features 36 beds that will soon be filled with various organically grown vegetables and fruits: four types of lettuce, cabbage, turnips, mustard greens, three kinds of onion, peas, string beans, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant.
Dwarf fruit trees situated between the garden’s entrance and the beehive boast blossoms that as the season continues will be replaced by apples, pears and peaches. Apricot trees will be planted soon, as well.
Community members volunteer tending the garden throughout each season, Robillard said. And while it exists thanks to help from the community, the garden also feeds hundreds of community members annually.
Everything grown in the garden is distributed to those who need it through the Coventry Food Bank. More than 500 residents will be fed by the garden’s bounty this year, Tatangelo said.
The garden was bustling Friday with community members of all ages. Along the garden’s edges, eighth graders from Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School plucked weeds from garden beds and raked leaves; members of The Trust stained a shed and painted a picnic table; master gardeners mowed the grass between the garden beds.
“They’re pretty much getting us ready for our growing season,” Robillard said of Friday’s volunteers.
Strolling through the garden past beds of freshly turned soil, Robillard seemed particularly excited by a recently installed drip irrigation system, which he said should make upkeep a bit easier this year than it’s been in the past.
“It takes two and a half hours for two people to water this,” he said as he walked down the garden’s center aisle.
Robillard said he’s also eager to receive grant funding that will be used to build a greenhouse at the senior center.
“The goal is to do some horticultural therapy with seniors,” he said, “have them do intergenerational stuff with the kids, and feed our neighbors in need. That’s really what the whole goal is.”
For members of The Trust, the event Friday offered a good opportunity to “give back to the community” they serve, said Ken Fogarty, a property inspector.
“We have a partnership with the cities and towns in Rhode Island,” Fogarty said, “and this just helps us interact with the community, get to know people. It’s a great thing.”
Jennifer Asay, a teacher at Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School, echoed the importance of giving back.
“I think this is great,” Asay said, as around her 16 of her students dug through soil and dumped old leaves into garbage barrels. “I think it’s awesome for them to be out here helping out in the community.”
The students involved in Friday’s event are members of Asay’s advisory group, brought together by their common interest in community service.
As part of what Asay called a “personalization goal” at the middle school, each student belongs to an advisory group—some of which are themed—that meets every other day. While other advisory groups at the middle school focus on things like film and video games, Asay’s students participate regularly in volunteer activities.
“It’s important for the kids to be exposed to different experiences,” Asay said, adding that her students have also volunteered at the senior center and with programs like Adopt-a-Family.
“They’re always doing something,” she continued. “They come up with great ideas and follow through.”
Eighth-grader Leila Weathers lauded the advisory group for offering her and her classmates an easy way to get involved with the community.
“Our advisory is pretty important because it gets kids out and helping with everyone,” she said, taking a brief break from gardening.
Asay added that she loves to see the pride her students take in the volunteer work they do. After each event, she said, her students take time to reflect on the experience and what they learned from it.
Based on the various comments that were made throughout the morning—comments on how much they’d learned about gardening—the students were clearly given a lot to reflect on Friday.
And for Tatangelo, those are exactly the kind of reactions she likes to see.
“I love having the kids,” Tatangelo said. “The kids are the most important, because they’re the ones that we want to teach. If you don’t teach the kids, you don’t keep the gardens going, we don’t have food.”
Tatangelo added that anyone interested in helping with the garden can stop by any morning or call her at (401)529-2316.