June 24, 2020

Princeton Free Garden Project Lets Neighbors Grow Together

GROWING CONCERNS: The four garden beds recently built behind the YMCA and YWCA facilities on Paul Robeson Place are part of a new community gardening initiative being introduced in parts of the town.

By Anne Levin

Once Ross Wishnick got the idea to install community gardens in different parts of Princeton a few weeks ago, it wasn’t long before four raised beds were built and planted on an island in the parking lot of the YMCA and YWCA facilities on Paul Robeson Place.

Wishnick, who is the founder of Send Hunger Packing Princeton (SHUPPrinceton, proposed the idea to YMCA CEO Kate Bech, who quickly got on board. The Princeton Free Garden Project, a grassroots initiative to plant community garden beds around town, was born.

“I think people get satisfaction in being able to provide for themselves,” Wishnick said. “I’ve been a food guy. I understand that access to food and to fresh produce has been a thing that people have been asking for.”

The project started with initial seed funding from Bank of Princeton, of which Wishnick is co-founder, and Glenmede Trust. Thanks to the agreement with the YMCA, the initiative will now be able to seek additional donations under the umbrella of the YMCA, which will process the donations and expenses.

“It doesn’t cost a lot, but it does cost money,” Wishnick said. “So this frees us up to do proper fundraising and people can get their letter saying they donated.”

Last Friday, Wishnick arranged for another two beds to be built in the parking lot behind Tortuga’s restaurant, in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. “This morning, I met with people in the community, and we talked about it, and today I bought the lumber,” Wishnick said on Monday. “We’ll cut it down and build two beds. The water is there. We’ll find some community members to help.”

The plan is to grow herbs and vegetables such as basil, tomatoes, and cucumbers. “We’re trying to provide things that are hardy and will grow,” said Wishnick. “The idea is that we identify a few ambitious leaders of a small group of people, and they get involved. A team works on each bed, making sure it gets watered. They’ll have a schedule. Weeding will be minimal because we’re putting in good soil.”

Each raised bed measures 4×8 feet, and community members chosen to take ownership for each plant bed will decide how the 32 square feet will be planted with guidance from landscape architect Jim Davidge. The “owners” of each bed will then be able to harvest the produce for themselves and their neighbors. Beds were built with mostly repurposed wood, trellis material that was found in the trash, and wood chips that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

Bech, who is the outgoing president of the Garden Club of Trenton, is enthusiastic about the project. “Throughout history, in difficult and uncertain times, gardens have not only provided nutritious food, they have served as a compelling symbol of hope,” she said in a press release. “It’s a credit to the Princeton Free Garden volunteer creators who imagined a creative way to teach lifelong skills and engender a spirit of connection in this challenging moment of social distancing. Nothing connects people more than working on a project together – especially in the dirt.”

Wishnick and colleagues are looking at some additional locations. Proximity to a water source is key. “This is a community effort,” he said. “Within each pocket of residences, the people gardening are doing it for themselves or their neighbors. We do this over and over, so this is a thriving operation where people can help themselves and help others.”

For more information on the project, visit princetonymca.org.