August 31, 2017

GARDEN IN THE HOOD - Discovering Local Urban Gardens

My home town of Worcester, MA , once a vibrant mill town during the industrial revolution, suffered a decline which many American cities experienced in the lat 20th C. Now, signs of a rebirth are emerging and I don't mean just corn - new restaurants, cafe's, housing and shops are bringing back a younger and more diverse population

I know that my pictures often make our yard and garden look fancy, but the truth is we live in an urban garden.  If you visited here, you would agree. The house is on the outskirts of Worcester, MA, bordering the towns of Auburn and Millbury and there are woodlands behind us but we are well within the city limits of an urban area smack in the middle of Massachusetts, one hour from Boston and one hour from Providence, RI.

The city bus passed directly in front of our house, as do many loud motorcycles, not to mention the  thump, thump, thump ("boots and pants and boots and pants") of car speakers turned up way too loud. I live here because I was born here, and my father was born here, and although I say to someone most every day that I really should call the cops on those kids racing their all terrain vehicles (without helmets!) down our road or about the other kids racing their screeching loud minibikes, or even about a neighbor behind us who thinks is gradually bulldozing-in the wetland behind our house and ever-expanding his property which includes the worlds largest party deck, pool and aparantly 'soundsystem' (worthy of a salsa nightclub), well, I just don't want to be that guy.

City living has its benefits though. Worcester is so gloriously ethnically diverse that markets and restaurant of all ethnicities abound. If I need a cows tongue to poach, a whole lamb to roast or a split calves head, I can find one. If I need Vietnamese veggies, hard-to-find herbs,  a Middle Eastern market that sells most every spice and rice known to Marco Polo, and Chinese food that is more about frogs legs and kidneys than it is about egg roles. Our kind of town. A foodie-kind of town.

I may live in an urban garden, but that doesn't mean that I am limited as to what I can grow!


Yes folks, it's just like that - summer is over. At least it is here in the northeast. Kids are back to school, the first cool weather arrived and the tomatoes have succumbed to late blight. I will admit that this summer did feel like the longest summer ever (or at least from 1984 when I last had a summer off) but in hindsight - where did it go?

I know, I know - we'll still get hot weather, and gardening isn't over by a long-shot since the fall crops have just been planted, but we gardeners know when the seasons shift, and so do the meteorologists since Sept. 1st is considered meteorological summer. I'm good with all of that, for I love the cool weather (winter-boy here).

Mother Nature thinks that it is autumn too, for right on schedule, the fall bulbs are emerging with this shift in both night-time temperatures and ever-shortening day-length. In the greenhouse the first cyclamen are starting to bloom, coming out of their long hot and dry summer under glass, just as if they would be doing in the forests of the Caucasus' or in the mountains of Greece. The cool rains of autumn and temperature shifts are a strong force.

The South African bulbs too are stirring in their pots, awaiting their first drink of water from the hose in the greenhouse. Nerine, amaryllis and bulbous oxalis are all making root growth and beginning to show new leaves. I've been a little behind in my winter-blooming bulb clean-up given the book deadlines and other projects, but was able to spend a little time underglass today, cleaning up their pots and removing dead leaves. I know that it won't be long before everything is moved back into the greenhouse and an entirely new gardening season will begin. At least for this year, for this may be the last winter that I can afford to heat the greenhouse.

From the upper deck, I could look down to three different levels of gourds. underneath these structures grew Asian greens, herbs and other shade-loving veggies. 


This past week I happened to visit a few local gardens, a few by accident (Oooo, look at that?) and some planned (Chau - can we crash your parents gourd patch?). Each one was unique and so special, and all reminded me that it doesn't really matter where one lives, home is where you garden.

These gardens also reminded me that my parents garden here was essentially an 'ethnic garden'. Lithuanian and Polish  immigrants comprised most of the neighbors at one time in our neighborhood as well as Swedish. Three of our neighbors are still Polish (as in "don't-speak-a-word-of-English and wear-big-white-pointy-bra's-from-the-1960's-when-they-pick-mushrooms- type-of-Polish-").

It's serious.

I love it, for I remember as a kid hearing polka's on the AM radio as I weeded out back (although now, for some astern-

First visit? My gardening (from the Dahlia Society) friend Chou Ho's house. Chou's parents both don't speak  much English, but that doesn't stop us form communicating. When his mom needs fertile duck eggs, the delight on her face tells us exactly what she needs. Chou's family are immigrants from South East Asia (Vietnam) arriving here in the 1980's.  They live in a big, tidy house with a garden behind it on a gorgeous and quaint cul de sac in a new neighborhood not that far from us.

The flowers on these gourds were just as lovely as the fruit, and because the decks are on three levels, you can enjoy them from above.

Chou's father and older brother are both serious gardeners (it's pretty clear where Chou discovered his interests). Like many of us when looking for the one house on the street where a gardener live, we discover that is really wasn't that hard, and the same goes in this case. How and I drove along slowly through the neighborhood of mostly new houses until we laughed when we spotted the driveway full of chili pepper plants, rows of eggplants in pots and a perfect lawn to boot.

The magic though was happening out back, where an elaborate multi-tiered system was housing amazing vines of all sorts of Asian gourds.

Innovative planting techniques were everywhere, from Malabar spinach growing in troughs to Japanese Horned Melons growing in recycled bakery buckets.

Tiny peppers (Chiltepin or Tepin type) are grown in barrels along with eggplants which lined then entire driveway. The chilis enjoy the additional heat and can be brought indoors for the winter, as an entire underground fan base does with many chili peppers. Oddly enough, Chow explained to me that his family never eats hot food, rather his father shares or sells the plants with others in the community. (Kind of like me and okra!)

Chow is a graphic designer and raises exhibition dahlias as well as many other plants (plant geek certified) but I discovered his parents talents last year when Chow visited us to look at the dahlias bringing along some Asian gourds from his parents garden. Worcester has a very large Vietnamese and Cambodian population, so I've been seeing these amazing gourds and squashes growing in the front yards and decks of many homes, but I've never been able to get close enough to really see what was going on.

Chow's father (Mr. Ho, left) shows us how innovative his growing techniques are. These snake gourds and sponge gourds are growing on two different levels of their deck, which is built on a steep hill.

Chow (left) and Joe were getting impatient as we began to smell what was coming from the kitchen where Chows mom was frying up spring rolls, egg rolls and shrimp vermicelli. Not to mention Tapioca cake!

A bridge made of wood and a little terrace on the steep rocks led us to another trellis that faced the setting sun. There, bitter melons and more gourds were growing.

Some sponge gourds were over 4 feet long!

There were many different types of Lufa or Sponge Gourd. This one had a blunt end an no ridges.

Along the other side of the house was a gourd tunnel, with even more gourds hanging down.

On Sunday, Joe and I decided to try a new breakfast place out - The Birch, located on Green Street in Worcester, MA. Now, Worcester is beginning to experience an amazing rebirth, and many can attribute this to those few who decided to confidently move back into the heart of this city which once was so vibrant. After I parked the car, I spotted a gentleman watering a garden which sat just above an empty parking lot. The garden sat in another vacant lot where a tenement building once stood. North, south, east and west all one can see are abandoned  buildings, factories or vacant lots, so this all seemed odd and yet completely amazing. Graphiti and sunflowers. I decided to walk up and ask the man if I could photograph the plots of corn, squash and sunflowers when I realized that I knew him. 

Once on the lower level of Alan Fletchers garden, I could look up and see this pergola covered in grapes, white light bulbs and beyond it the brick home that used to be a private school. Now, it's Italianate villa meets inner city. Just amazing.


My paths have crosses with philanthropist and businessman Alan Fletcher a number of times over the years, (he once co-owned a local art gallery the Fletcher Priest Gallery which used to represent my work in the 1990's, and he once owned Worcester Magazine where I had my first job) but I have not seen him for 20 years. So when I spotted a silver-haired man watering an urban garden  complete with sunflowers and Hubbard squash in an abandoned lot, I thought that maybe it could be him. I walked up the hill as asked if I could take a few shots of the garden, but then realized that this was indeed Mr. Fletcher. He smiled and asked "where the heck have I been?" I explained how a corporate job in a commute one hour away can suck the time away.

Alan is a special soul. He toured Joe and I through this incredible building and gardens. Grape vines covered a pergola on a steep hill that could have come directly off of a cliff-side villa in Positano, Italy. Pumpkins, corn and flowers filled the garden below, while high above and beyond the pergola towered this massive three story schoolhouse (villa) with balconies that he added along the front windows. 

Alan has a history of contributing to the local community and he has done so in many ways. Clearly, a visionary, when he this once abandoned brick school house built in 1850, renovated it many thought that he might be a little crazy (only guessing!). What was  surprising if not shocking is that he bought this school and invested in it in a big way. Now, I should remind you that it sits on a hill between abandoned tenement houses, an abandoned market which had to be torn down, a Polish club and the Table Talk Pie factory (giant metal box built in mid century).

Call it gentrification, or a rebirth, this part of Worcester which was just once abandoned buildings,  is being recast as an up and coming destination to both live and work. Restaurants are opening, and this part of the city boasts newly renovated mill lofts, and the entire area which is known as  'The Canal District' feels vibrant and not unlike the Meat Packing District in New York. The Canal District promises to be our 'Hi-Line'.

Alan has also submitted a plan to the City of Worcester Planning Board  for a new Public Market.  Local reporters have labeled it 'An ambitious 80,000 square foot development with a public marketplace on the first floor'. Alan envisions that it can feature many of the city's unique cultural communities but through a common language - food.  Albanian, Ghanian, Dominican and other food vendors as well as a seasonal farmers market can come together under one roof.

Worcester was always diverse, when my grandparents arrived here in 1900, the city's neighborhood was very much like any other city in the northeast. An Italian section, an Irish section, a street where the Jews can shop with bakeries and Kosher Deli's, another neighborhood for Swedish, Albanian, Armenian and Lithuanian. Today, the matrix is even more complex but like New York, is beginning to embrace the culture of each community.

Since the Canal District is located in a working, non-residential part of the city, it makes complete sense that this area - so historical (because of the Blackstone Canal, which once connected two of New Englands most industrial cities - Worcester to Providence - a historical and important technical feat for 1828, and which today is being rediscovered through the National Park Service and the Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park and Corridor (which is where I live).

Alan gave us a tour of his school house now apartment building and garden where we spent nearly an hour. I wish that I took a better picture of the building, but I was in awe with how innovative it was. Metal roofing reimagined as fencing material and decking, plants and vines added to the Italianate feel of the brickwork and the vista over the industrial parts of the city being transformed into a livable community was inspiring.


  1. Anonymous3:02 AM

    Fascinating! So great to read about this urban transformation. I have seen similar gourds growing out of old plastic buckets in Shanghai, soaring up poles and going across wires over busy roads. And there is a gourd tunnel around the corner from me on a council estate in central London. I am always amazed at how such a small bucket can sustain such growth. In Shanghai I was shown a small covered bucket next to the planter bucket. The family threw their green waste in there, covered with water which was then used for the gourd. The answer seems to be constant feeding.

  2. Nice, I love the city like this one.
    I have my own garden and always try to make sure that we have the fresh fruit.


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