A New American Garden
Gardeners from ten nations cultivate connections to their homelands and more in Concord.
On a warm summer day, the Sycamore Community Garden, tucked in a grassy field at the New Hampshire Technical Institute (NHTI) in Concord, teems with activity. There’s the hum of several languages being spoken by women and men in colorful clothing as they tend to their individual garden plots. Children run back and forth, playing hide and seek among the ten-foot-tall African corn stalks. Elders watch from the garden’s edge, warming themselves in the sun and taking it all in.
Research has long shown that gardening is a form of escape, a calming way to connect to the natural world around us. The Sycamore Community Garden offers something else: a familiar sense of place in a strange world for recently arrived immigrants and refugees (often called “New Americans”).
Sycamore’s gardeners hail from ten countries, including Nepal, Bhutan, Iraq, Burundi, Nigeria and Somalia. The organic garden connects these New Americans to their homelands, and gives them an opportunity to help feed their families by growing familiar fruits and vegetables. The garden combines recreation, exercise and socialization with an opportunity for self-reliance and community development.
“It’s truly what makes them feel at home,” says longtime community garden volunteer and former garden manager Cheryl Bourassa. “One of the gardeners, a woman from Somalia, told me: ‘(Since coming here) I live surrounded by concrete, and I thought I was going to die. Then, I found the garden and I knew I could survive here.’”
The Sycamore Community Garden was established in 2009 after Concord resident and community gardener Ralph Jimenez approached NHTI about creating a garden that could accommodate the area’s growing New American population. Representatives from the school enthusiastically agreed to be involved, providing land and expertise as well as helping establish the garden as a nonprofit organization. Designed to serve low-income families, the garden is accessible via the local bus line, an important consideration for those who don’t have reliable transportation.
The garden has 168 plots, serving 130 families; gardeners who qualify for the community garden must register annually to retain their plots and unclaimed plots are distributed via lottery. NHTI students have small plots in the garden where they perform soil testing, create projects to increase the pollinator population and more.
Plants for the garden are cultivated and grown by students at the University of New Hampshire’s Thompson School of Applied Science (Sycamore provides the seeds). Crops include African grinding corn, okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, hot peppers (“Hotter than many of us eat,” says Bourassa), potatoes, kale, daikon radishes, African eggplants and beans of all kinds. The gardeners haul their own water from two wells on the property.
The garden serves both as an escape and a community center for its gardeners. Many have spent years in refugee camps, with minimal control over their lives. “Most live in crowded conditions here, on severely limited incomes, because work for anyone—let alone for someone new to the language, culture and country—is very hard to get,” Bourassa says.
Many of the gardeners don’t speak English; some are illiterate. Ghana Shyama, a native of Bhutan, is the garden’s translator and sometimes peacemaker. On any given day during the growing season, he’s at Sycamore, greeting gardeners, helping them share information with one another and smoothing over disagreements. “People can engage with each other, and if they’re in the garden, they’re completely happy,” he says. “We share everything: produce, seeds, even cooking tips.”
Sycamore has done more than help New Americans: it inspires the numerous volunteers who help it flourish. Jonathan Ebba, horticultural facilities manager at the Thompson School of Applied Science, works with UNH students to cultivate the garden’s seedlings, then deliver them to Sycamore via truck in June. “Our students meet people who’ve been completely uprooted, and learn how food and plant production can ground them,” he says. “Agriculture, on the most primitive level, is what ties us to place and the land. I really love that my students see that.”
When Sycamore’s current garden manager, Kym Ventola, moved to Concord from Arizona, Bourassa, a neighbor, introduced her to the garden. “She invited my ten-year-old son and me to volunteer at the garden, and we jumped at the opportunity,” Ventola says. “The day we were handing out seedlings to the gardeners was so great. I felt such a strong connection to the community.”
Shyama sums it up best. “Our plots are small, but there are big friends in the garden,” he says. “It’s the best place to be.”
Right: Former NHTI President and current Sycamore Community Garden board member Lynn Kilchenstein chats with Tika Khatiwada about his plants.
Right: A mother and her son check the plants they received on plant giveaway day at the Sycamore Community Garden in Concord.
Middle: Bhagi Timsina hoes her garden.
Right: Nil Timsina receives tomato and other plants on plant giveaway day.
Right: With an umbrella protecting them from the summer sun, gardeners visit their plots.