University of Maine Cooperative Extension water quality and soil specialist John Jemison is much more than a farmer or gardener — he’s a community leader and visionary for Maine’s future. In 2004, the first community garden in Orono started and Jemison began to change people’s ideas on gardening, sustainability and healthy lifestyles.
With Jemison’s organization and help from students and volunteers, the project has grown into a reliable source of food, with garden space expanding every season and a second garden added two years ago by an outside organization.
Although these gardens share the same area, bordering the Orono Senior Center on Birch Street, the two gardens have two distinctly different goals.
The original garden, started by Jemison himself, began on the inspiration of a five month sabbatical in Italy where he said he “adopted the principals and practices” of small Italian farming. After seeing the Italians use even the smallest spaces for growing crops, Jemison knew there was plenty of opportunity for a community garden in Orono.
The second and more recent garden was also started in 2004 as a part of the Children’s International Summer Villages to be used as a multi-generational garden to offer a variety of programs for all ages. CISV is an international program started by Old Town native and UMaine graduate Doris Twitchell Allen, with the goal being for young people to achieve a broader knowledge of the world through various educational programs.
The main purpose of the CISV garden is to produce food for a monthly meal at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. This meal provides food for 100 people and is served 10 months out of the year.
The garden not only provides food for a tremendous effort, it’s visually appealing with symmetry and perfectly tended rows of vibrant vegetables. This garden also offers the application of cooking skills after the raw food is brought to the homeless shelter to be prepared.
The original community garden sits behind the Senior Center and even though it is less visually appealing it still makes a grand contribution to the community. “The intention is different,” said Jemison, as he explained where the food from his garden goes. There are 50 recipients in the Orono area who receive five pounds of fresh vegetables per week. “People get to eat food that they normally wouldn’t be able to buy,” said Jemison.
Volunteers make it all possible, gardening on Saturdays and Tuesdays, along with bagging and delivering the food every Tuesday night. Unfortunately, as the sunlight becomes limited and the winter season nears, the food given away from the garden usually stops in late September.
Jemison has been the leader in the community garden movement, but it is the helping hands of the community that makes the gardens thrive. Back in 2004, Jemison started with a 30-bed garden and “over the years people have come and asked for garden space,” reported Jemison. The farmer’s market in Orono has even donated money for the gardens and often gives away left over product at the end of the market to add to the community garden’s food. On Labor Day weekend, incoming freshman were introduced to the Orono community and around 30 students worked hands-on in the garden to lend a helping hand.
Not only do the gardens provide quality food for the community, but Jemison believes it “teaches gardening methods […] and healthier lifestyles.” Knowing that the average American diet doesn’t meet the required vegetable intake, it was important for Jemison to be able to provide a good resource in his community.