IN THE CITY, SEEDS OF LIFE AND HOPE

CHRIS STURGIS Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: E1

Date: Sunday, May 23, 1999

Planting. Weeding. Watering. Harvesting. Every day on 51 plots, each one a 10-by-10-foot square inside a fence at the edge of Lincoln Park, green things slowly grow out of an urban quarter.


But the garden in Albany is a melting pot for more than vegetables.


Like other community gardens in the region and in urban settings nationwide, the patch of cultivated land is a place where neighbors work together, confronting blight with action -- and hope blooms.


On a picture-perfect Friday afternoon, 87-year-old Rene Weber, who was born in the countryside of Alsace, France, worked side by side with Johnie Dow Jr., an African-American descended from South Carolina sharecroppers. Weber is cultivating spinach, peas, Swiss chard, tomatoes, cucumbers and parsley. Dow has opted to plant corn, raspberries and fruit trees that will someday bear peaches, apples and cherries. Meanwhile, Dow's daughters, Mariana, 7, and Josephine, 13, have some vegetables, too, but prefer to grow snapdragons, pansies and marigolds.


``The ladies' touch is flowers mostly,'' the father said.


Elena Matcovich, who gardens with her brother, John, is carrying on their father's hobby, one she's come to enjoy much more as an adult than she did as a child.


Weber, the Dows and the Matcoviches are among the 500 families who grow food, flowers and friendship through Capital District Community Gardens, where, by most accounts last week, the season is off to a fast start. The warm weather came early, and that got the gardeners going.


Ask Amy Klein, the group's executive director, who won Community Gardens a $1,500 grant to expand in a Troy neighborhood plagued by drugs and social problems. She's not sure. ``Several of our gardens could be described that way,'' she said.


The vulnerable sprouts and shoots breaking through the earth these days bring out a protective attitude from neighbors, she said.


For example, a truck tore open the fencing around the Troy garden known as Father Flanagan's Farm in the spring of 1997. Neighbors, even non-gardeners, were so vigilant that not one plant was harmed in the 11 days before the fence was mended, Klein recalled.


Another garden spawned a neighborhood association, Klein said.


In Troy and Albany, City Hall has demonstrated its support for the programs. Albany has installed new water lines to serve the gardens.


Such positive reinforcement is especially important because New York City recently attempted to auction off 115 community garden plots that had been rescued from piles of junk.


Those gardens were saved when singer Bette Midler stepped in and contributed $250,000 of her own money and persuaded others to put up $4 million more to buy the gardens.


The incident highlights the passionate nature of community gardening. One gardener dressed up as a sunflower and climbed a tree outside City Hall to demand a meeting with Mayor Rudy Giuliani.


Community gardens are where nutrition and anti-poverty activists intersect with environmentalists, said Kate Duesterberg, program coordinator at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Vermont, which promotes economically sound agriculture without sacrificing the environment.


The Internet page for the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners says the plots promote ``empowerment.'' The American Community Gardening Association says the gardens are opportunities for recreation, exercise and therapy.


Community gardening also is growing because it is viewed as a vehicle for education, job training and rehabilitation, Duesterberg said.


In Watervliet, the Board of Education recently approved a lesson plan on Colonial America in which students will grow a Native American garden with corn, squash and pumpkins.


These projects work because agriculture has a special psychological power, Duesterberg said.


``It's a way to feed the spiritual need and get in touch with the earth. In the cities, people have historical roots in the country, on farms. It helps them to connect to where they came from,'' Duesterberg said.


But sometimes the signals get confused -- as was the case before Watervliet's Zoning Board of Appeals, which rejected a request to build a garden.


Joseph Salo, chairman of the zoning panel, said the garden would be unsightly, harbor rodents and encourage teenagers to swipe tomatoes and lob them at passing cars.


Klein said Community Gardens is working with Watervliet to find another site in the city. And gardeners from Cohoes, Watervliet and Green Island drive to Troy to tend their gardens, she said. FACTS:DATA LINK "A Place to Grow: Voices and Images of Urban Gardeners" by David Hassler (Pilgrim Press, 1999). "A Patch of Eden: America's Inner-City Gardeners" by H. Patricia Hynes (Chelsea Green Pub. Co., 1996). "Creating Community in the City" by Ruth H. Landman (Bergin & Garvey, 1993). "Handbook of Community Gardening" by Boston Urban Gardeners (Scribner, 1982). online See The New York City Community Garden Coalition at http://www.nycgardens.org. Or, for one of the best online guides for urban gardening, see Canada's City Farmer at