New Community Garden to Become Stafford Landmark

Begins to Flourish at Manahawkin Lake
By VICTORIA FORD | Jun 16, 2015
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

The community garden concept has taken root in Stafford Township and is growing rapidly.

On the heels of the All Saints Regional Catholic School’s garden unveiled earlier this month (see related story), another stylish and inviting new garden has cropped up, surely noticed recently by anyone in Manahawkin who has driven down West Bay Avenue – the connector road between Route 9 and eastbound Route 72 and the location of Heritage Park and A. Paul King Park.

The previously idle plot of land situated between Rita’s Water Ice and the Manahawkin Lake spillway has had an extreme makeover, thanks to the vision and effort of Reynolds Landscaping owner Mark Reynolds, Stafford Township Recreation Department Director Betti Anne McVey and a team of eager volunteers.

The project took about a year of planning but came together in less than a week, according to Reynolds. (His company also donated the plants for the school garden at All Saints.) Township public works crewmen built the fencing and framing, and the water-sewer guys installed a yard hydrant. Friday morning, June 12, a ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the official opening.

Front and rear entryways are embellished with natural materials, including a fallen limb from the backyard of Mark Reynolds’ son Luke. (Additional birch branches and trumpet vine are forthcoming, Mark said, as well as a bent steel letter S for Stafford, over the double gate.) A driftwood adornment was a chunk of bulkhead that Superstorm Sandy tore apart and washed ashore. An array of flowers attracts attention from the street, accented with a few old farm tools. Planters were fashioned from drainage pipe, cut into segments of varying heights and diameters.

Growing there currently are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries and herbs such as parsley, oregano, sage and basil – a somewhat limited selection given the relative lateness in the planting season.

Organizers are confident many of the details will sort themselves out in coming weeks. Reynolds, for one, hopes the garden will become a thriving, visually striking town center that serves not only as a resource to help supply area food banks, both nutritionally and financially, but also as a place of educational and historical significance. People will gravitate to it and the momentum will carry it forward, he said. People driving by will ask, “What is that, and how can I get involved?” (Email questions and interest to McVey at bmcvey@twp.stafford.nj.us.)

The concept is decidedly grassroots: “If you come work, you’re welcome to pick,” McVey said.

“Cool” and “funky” are two words Reynolds used to talk about the garden’s aesthetic, which will continue to develop as donations come in. Presently he’s on the lookout for a great secondhand utility shed to add to the property, if anyone has one to unload.

Such gardens are already common in Brooklyn and other urban environments, where ethnicities are diverse and creative energy is plentiful, Reynolds said. The trick is to create the right climate.

Knowing gardeners, who tend to be “naturally optimistic people,” McVey remarked, volunteers will step up to care for the beds and cultivate the plants. It’s like an athletic association, she explained, with interdepartmental cooperation and public input. “Eventually we’re going to have a community garden association.”

According to the garden proposal, community gardens yield not only produce and plants but also satisfying labor, neighborhood improvement and connection to the environment. “More than the physical infrastructure of the raised beds, water systems and fencing, community gardens help to develop the human infrastructure that is community,” the proposal states.

Furthermore, the garden demonstrates to kids, “this is where you find a tomato,” she said. Signage and literature will come next. Rain barrels will be added soon to enhance the learning experience. Dreams for the garden include a windmill and hydro-pumps, composting seminars and a butterfly garden.

It’ll take about three years to get it fully functioning, Reynolds estimated, but among community gardens he envisions it being “the premiere garden on the East Coast.”

He is motivated in part by his involvement with Southern Ocean County Community Foundation, headed by Dave Taylor, which supports eight local food banks and brings awareness to the plight of the hungry in Southern Ocean County. But for Reynolds, the project is also personal. He grew up on Manahawkin Lake from the time he was 2 years old, he said, while his parents owned Carroll’s Caravelle Inn and later the Cranberry Bog restaurants for 55 years. He’s had his own landscaping business for 35, and fully expects the new garden to be there 25 years from now. Planting gardens harkens back to Stafford’s farm-town heritage, and reinvests in the community’s future.

The project is largely self-sustaining. Cost is minimized by volunteer labor, repurposed materials and donations. Eventually, the garden and pavilion could be rented for weddings and private parties to generate revenue. Other programs might include spring work days, a fall mulch workshop, fall cleanup and summer camp day trips. Reynolds said a dry-erase board would show a task chart, so volunteers know what has been done and what needs doing.

Town Councilman Henry Mancini described it as “a nice segue” between the existing municipal and county parks that fosters community pride.

“After a long while of working here, when you can do something like this, it rejuvenates your soul,” McVey said.

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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