He’d peek over the fence during his daily walks, until one day he decided to speak up. He had never seen such a lush garden in his South Providence neighborhood and wondered how he could get a plot of his own.
He asked around and discovered that it was a community garden, a place by the people, for the people. By the spring, Cabreja Aquilino, who did not turn the soil, not once, during his boyhood in the Dominican Republic, was doting over his vegetables like a proud parent.
Now the 73-year-old grandfather is unstoppable. His days revolve around weeds and watering cans. His peppers are green and glossy. He is amazed that he can pluck one in the morning and eat it for lunch.
“If I stay home I do nothing,’’ says Aquilino. “Here, we smile, we wave. We all get along.’’
Spring is here, and so is planting season. The East Side is home to many thriving community gardens, from Brown Street to Fox Point. Now and then, it’s good to look beyond our neighborhood to find out how other gardens grow.
Aquilino’s second home is Somerset Community Garden off Broad Street, in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The one-acre of land – the site of a former chop shop – is an oasis of plants in a tough section of town.
Nothing goes to waste. Many gardeners grow enough so they don’t have to buy produce in grocery stores. They often freeze food to save for the winter months.
Somerset is also known for its diversity. Once called a “Little United Nations,’’ the garden has members from all over the world, including Laos, Cambodia, Liberia and Ireland. Many families are Hmong refugees who resettled in Providence in the 1980s.
Behind a fence smothered with vines are 72 plots of raised beds divided by chicken wire and bamboo. The garden is magical in full bloom, with narrow paths that lead to secluded spots shaded by arbors of branches and faded boards. Cats lurk in the tall lemongrass.
The garden is run by the Southside Community Land Trust, a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 by a Brown University student trying to rejuvenate the neighborhood. With a private donation, she bought a few cheap vacant lots and encouraged residents to turn them into gardens. Somerset was born.
Over the years, the land trust has flourished. The organization now has 15 community gardens (including Somerset), an urban farm that provides food to farmers’ markets and educational programs. Every year, the land trust holds a plant sale, with this year’s event on May 19-20 at City Farm.
All the gardens are unique, but Somerset is special. It’s the oldest garden and just a few steps from the land trust’s offices. Those three city blocks of green provide residents with a calm setting.
“A garden stabilizes the concept of hope,’’ says the land trust’s executive director, Katherine Brown. “Every year, you plant a seed hoping for a harvest.’’
That peacefulness is why many gardeners come back to Somerset year after year. Many fled violence in their native countries and appreciate the community they find at the garden. They meet for workshops on everything from composting to canning and begin each session with a group chant: My plot, our garden, our neighborhood. In mid-September they hold a harvest party.
Phil Edmonds, a native of Ireland and a member of the celebrated local band, The Gnomes, has been planting peas at Somerset for two decades. He recalls dancing to Bob Marley with gardeners from Laos and Liberia during a potluck at the Amos House soup kitchen years ago.
“It was quite a sight,’’ says Edmonds. “To see these gardeners with big smiles on their faces was so beautiful.’’
Aquilino visits his plot in the morning, walking the 10 blocks from his apartment. On this day, he unlocks the front gate and enters his tidy bed of vegetables. At first, he planted everything too close together. Sara Smith, another gardener, offered advice over her cornstalks: Don’t crowd your plants.
She should know. Farming was a way of life in Liberia, where she grew up and fled in 1994 to escape a civil war. She grows sweet potato leaves to simmer in sweet potato soup, a Liberian dish.
“My lady, how are you?’’ Aquilino says to her. He holds up one of his peppers. “Looks good,’’ she says. She lives in the yellow house across the street. Her young grandson carries the harvest back home in his arms.
“You make a garden, you eat,’’ says Smith, bending over to cut plants for the day’s meal. “It’s that simple.’’
One year, she was sick and couldn’t clear the plot to seed. Edmonds sifted the earth for her. He’s the go-to guy in the garden. He knows everyone and laughs often.
Growing up in an Irish village on the banks of the River Shannon, he tended to carrots, cabbage and potatoes, which he dug up with his bare hands. A 20-year member, Edmonds is the lanky guy in a wool watch cap who gives away bouquets of collard greens and plays the pennywhistle by the yellow cosmos on summer nights.
“I get to feel a connection to the earth,’’ says Edmonds. “And I get to eat organic, fresh food.’’
In the back, by a creeping morning glory, is Chantay Kingvlay, a gardener since opening day in 1981. She and her husband, Phan, tended their plot of bitter melon, long peas and a pointy-leafed plant that is a staple in the cuisine of Laos, her homeland.
A storm swept through one day, nearly toppling her bamboo fence. Edmonds came to the rescue, again. He tied the fence to the arbor with frayed netting, left behind by Phan, who died not long ago.
“I miss my husband,’’ she says, under the shade of her wide straw hat. “I come here and feel happy. Garden, garden, are you okay?’’