Community Garden credits volunteers for success

STURBRIDGE — In its second year of operation, the volunteer-driven Community Food Collaborative in Sturbridge gives full credit to its volunteers for the success of the garden.  All produce from the garden is organic and is donated to the Saint John Paul II Food Pantry located in Southbridge.  The Pantry services both Southbridge and Sturbridge.

“After last year’s success producing 1,524 pounds of fresh organic vegetables, we made the bold decision to double the size of the garden to 5,800 square feet with a total of 37 raised growing boxes,” commented Joe Coan, the garden’s president.  “It’s quite a commitment for the 12-member committee who work alongside the community volunteers.  We had a solid volunteer base but with a larger garden, we had to operate differently.  Instead of having individuals adopt beds to care for, we needed more participation so we established four work schedules throughout the week and weekend so volunteers could come when it was convenient for their schedules and we let them choose from a list of what needed to be done.  We think it worked out great for most everyone.  One or two committee members work at each work session and with vacations, illness, meetings, or travel, they cover for each other and it seems to work out well.  For the most part, we got to know the volunteers and they got to know each other and everyone seemed to enjoy sharing stories and gardening knowledge.” 

This year the garden committee hosted “guest groups” visiting the area who want to do community service work for a few hours.  So far, the “guest groups” include Housing Management Resources from Quincy, MA, which spent half a day planting, weeding and making hand-painted signs for the different vegetables which are now displayed in their proper growing box.  The signs help everyone know what variety of crop is growing in the box.  This group also donated several dozen men’s and women’s gloves as well as hand shovels and diggers.  Another group was the Defense Civilian Emerging Leaders Program (CDELP) from the DOD in Southbridge.  One team came from Georgia and one from Oklahoma.  For the second year, a team from United Way’s “Day of Caring” worked at the garden for several hours.

Tantasqua Regional High School has been great right from the start in helping with this project.  The carpentry department made the raised growing boxes last year and more this year when we expanded.  They also made a 12’ x 8’ tool shed for us this year which has been painted an eye-catching orange.  The garden pays for the lumber and any materials but the students use their skills to get everything built.  The lacrosse girls team filled the boxes with soil last year and again this year.  The Town of Sturbridge provides us with the water and all the wood chips we need.  People from area towns bought garden tools from Whatforme to be donated and many, many companies have donated in-kind services.  When the companies hear who we are and what we’re doing to help food-insecure members of our communities, they donate their work as their contribution to our efforts.    

Having a garden of any size comes with a few challenges.  A hungry woodchuck and several rabbits sampled a lot of veggies before they were “discouraged” from doing so.  Holes chewed through the plastic fence were repaired repeatedly.  Supplies to increase efficiency are expensive.  The committee runs a fundraising campaign each February and the local banks, businesses and some individuals have been very generous.  The garden has also received two small grants from the Rotary District Foundation.  This year, the garden committee has applied for a grant that focuses on community gardens and should hear soon if it is received. 

“A larger garden means much more watering”, Coan said, “so with some of our remaining funds, an irrigation system was installed in one-half of the garden.  The garden committee is sensitive to keeping waste to a minimum so an irrigation system positioned close to the plants waters only the plant and not the walkways or edges to the fencing, nor does it let the water evaporate.  If the grant is received, we plan to irrigate the other half of the garden and secure the garden with new metal fencing.”

Another challenge for the garden was when it rained during a work session and the session had to be cancelled.  Especially difficult was when it rained during harvest time.  The harvest can’t wait.  Members of the garden committee would watch the weather and move harvesting up an hour or two based on the forecast but that wasn’t always convenient for volunteers’ schedules.  However, these folks are determined and the crops were harvested regularly.  The garden also adjusted the time of their work sessions recently when the Town of Sturbridge raised the EEE alert to HIGH.  Coan stressed the safety of the volunteers comes first.

“The committee was fortunate this year to have Roberta Watson join them as its second chief gardener,” says committee member Pauline White.  “Roberta, a Co-Director at the Saint John Paul II Food Pantry, shares her experiences and knowledge from the Food Pantry perspective.  She also planted a few new varieties not grown last year such as different kinds of winter squash, okra and tomatillos.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time focused on the infrastructure of the garden and the crops,” according to White.  “That’s why we were very happy when the Southbridge Garden Club, of which several members volunteer at the garden, offered to install plantings around the garden sign in an effort to make the entrance to the garden more attractive.  We are looking forward to that happening this fall.” 

“It has been another busy year and a good year for us”, says Coan.  “Once we expanded, we set a goal of growing and donating 3,000 pounds of vegetables to the Pantry.  We are almost at our goal and we still have lots of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant to ripen.  We’ve come a long way in our two years with the garden and we plan to continue to look for ways to streamline and work more efficiently and to grow great produce.  We sometimes talk at our committee meetings about what people say to us.  Most of them tell us it’s a great project that we are doing – helping to feed people in need.  Yes, we feel that way too.” Check out the garden’s Facebook page at or website at or email them at  The garden committee welcomes volunteers, donations of funds, new or used garden tools, and in-kind services.  Pay a visit and take a look at the garden and see the amazing work these folks are doing.  They are located on Maple Street in Sturbridge behind the Sturbridge Town Hall in the lower parking lot.


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