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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 28, 2011

Gardeners from around the world till the good earth in Guilderland

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — Fan Chen calls Guilderland’s Community Gardens “a mini United Nations.”

Chen is originally from Taiwan, and the people who garden in neighboring plots on town land hail from the Ukraine, Latvia, England, France, and Argentina, just to name a few.

Some have gardened all their lives and been at the community gardens for decades while others recently took it up and are just starting their first year at the Guilderland gardens.

Begun in 1989, the project now has nearly 100 garden plots and covers over five acres. The 65 families who use the gardens pay $10 annually for the first lot, and $15 for any additional lot. The land was part of an abandoned farm on Route 146 in the center of Guilderland.

Chen has been part of the community gardens since the 1980s. She came to the United States from Taiwan when she was in the 10th grade. Her parents moved to Libya to help get United Nations votes for Taiwan. There were no schools in Libya for Chen to attend so she came to Seattle and lived with a host family while she went to high school. Her two siblings were sent to live with other families elsewhere in the U.S.

“The Chinese put a lot of emphasis on education,” said Chen. She visited her family in Libya throughout high school and college, and she said her father had a big garden there.

“In Libya, we couldn’t get Chinese vegetables in the store, so he grew them,” Chen said. Now a professor at the University of Albany, Chen lives in Fairwood Apartments in Guilderland, and said she told the manager there that they should provide a garden area for residents. The manager told her about the community gardens.

“I was so excited that I immediately got a plot and started hauling in horse manure for fertilizer,” said Chen. She grows a combination of Chinese greens and other vegetables.

“My body always feels so much better when I eat Chinese greens,” Chen said. In the summer, she doesn’t buy vegetables at all, eating only what she grows. Whenever she has excess, she shares with her neighbors in the gardens, and, she said, they do the same.

“It’s a social thing; it means a lot more to me than having a garden in my yard, because you always see someone to talk to, and learn new things,” said Chen. “I always feel so good in the garden — I hear the insects, and the birds, and even the air feels different. There is something magical about it.”

A sure thing

For Ludmila Popova, who grew up in the Ukraine and has only been in the United States for six years, gardening represents something with guaranteed, tangible results. She came to the U.S. to pursue a degree in chemistry.

“Not all experiments work; in fact, most of them fail,” she said. She appreciates gardening, because it always gets results.

“My family has been gardening for as long as I can remember. Most of our food came from the garden, because everything was too expensive,” Popova said. This was especially important during the economic recession that started in 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“It was a bad crisis, and people lost their jobs or didn’t get paid for their work, but had to eat,” said Popova. Her parents both taught at a college, and her father voluntarily left his job when he wasn’t getting paid for his work. Her family grew vegetables and fruit, and would swap with other people.

“I spent my summers at my grandparents’ house in a small village, where they had a garden of several acres. I loved to pick peaches,” Popova said. She was an only child but had many cousins, some of whom owned a strawberry farm.

Popova said gardening felt like more of a chore when she was a child, but now she loves to grow tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, and sunflowers.

“It’s nice to get outside, breathe the fresh air, and get exercise with a shovel,” said Popova. “And I can always find someone to talk to here.”

Shared plot

Gunnar Dvelis has to make sure he doesn’t over-exert himself and get too much exercise by gardening. He is 93. Dvelis was born in Latvia, but was raised all over Europe, because his father was an ambassador.

When the Russians invaded Latvia during World War II, he was enrolled in a military academy in England. In 1939, when the Germans attacked Poland and England entered the war, he volunteered for service.

“I got in with British military intelligence because I spoke German and French fluently,” Dvelis said. He stayed in Germany for three years after the war, where he attended Hamburg University, and met his wife, who was a “displaced person” at the time.

After he got out of the Army, he returned to England and went back to school. He and his wife came to the United States in 1960, to be near his wife’s family, who lived in Troy. His wife has since died and he has remarried.

Dvelis attended school at the University of Albany to get his master’s degree in business administration. He worked as a management consultant for people in the needle trades, and as a small-business counselor.

Dvelis took up gardening only five years ago, as a hobby during retirement.

“I like to see things grow,” he said. He never had room for a garden when he lived in England.

“The yard was so small I could cut the grass with a pair of scissors,” said Dvelis. Other gardeners in Guilderland tease him because his plot is so neatly laid out. He measures the distance between each row to make sure they’re all even. His garden is set up for efficiency, not aesthetics.

“I like neat organization. I’m a military man,” said Dvelis. His wife wanted him to stop gardening because of his age and his legs, which are in bad shape. Fortunately, Sally Cummings stepped in and offered to share his plot, so that he could do as little or as much work as he was able, and still be involved in the gardens.

Cummings was raised in London. She was born in the midst of an air raid over London during World War II.

“My father was a keen gardener,” she said. Her family belonged to something similar to the community gardens in England. Each family had what they called an “allotment.”

“It was so different then. We did everything by hand, and never even dreamed of having anything like a rototiller,” said Cummings. They didn’t have hoses there, so gardeners had to haul water in big buckets, which they would transfer to watering cans to use in the garden. The only place they could store their tools was in a dilapidated shed.

“We grew every vegetable, except for squash. I had never heard of squash. Once I got here, I sent my family back some squash seeds, and they were fascinated,” said Cummings.

Her father used to tell her she was more of a burden than a help when she was little because she was more interested in exploring than planting, and he was constantly interrupted to answer her questions.

Cummings recalled that she would ride her bicycle to the garden at 11 a.m. to bring her father a thermos of coffee, and then she would stay to work with him.

“I loved it, because I got to spend one-on-one time with him,” said Cummings. She had two older brothers, and said neither of them enjoyed helping in the garden.

Cummings came to the United States as a young woman in 1971, after having met her future husband while he was in England serving in the United States Air Force. She went from England, to New York City, and then flew to South Dakota, where her husband-to-be was stationed.

“I had thought all of America was skyscrapers and pushing buttons,” she said. “I landed in South Dakota at a tiny airport where a man in a cowboy hat with a gun on his hip came out to meet me on the runway.” Eventually, she and her husband moved to Albany to live with his mother.

Her husband died, and she spent 11 years raising their children in Albany, where she had a very tiny garden. When she met her second husband, she moved to Guilderland, where they had a quarter-acre garden.

“I was in my element,” Cummings said.

That was before she realized the garden was all sandy, because it was in the Pine Bush. She grows flowers there, but sought out the community gardens to grow her vegetables.

When she first started, she had a plot that someone had planted and then abandoned, so she had to pull up all the weeds first. Dvelis told her that, if she got the weeds up, he would use his rototiller to turn the soil over for her.

“I couldn’t believe it when he had the whole thing done in two days. That was before I found out he was 92! He said ‘If I keel over, call 9-1-1,’” said Cummings.

She helps Dvelis with his plot now, and, if they have extra produce, they donate it to the food pantry, or give it to friends.

Cummings said she is more at peace, and happier in the garden, than anywhere else.

“It’s being at one with nature. There’s nothing like having your hands in the soil — I won’t call it dirt, because it’s not dirty,” said Cummings.

New ground

Annie Talbot is looking forward to joining the gardeners at the community gardens. This will be her first season.

She grew up in Marseilles, France, but met her husband several decades ago in Africa while he was in the Peace Corps, and she was in a similar program. They were in Africa for six years, and then 27 years ago she moved to the United States to be with him.

Talbot said her husband does a bit of gardening at home, but she wants to get more involved with it herself.

“ I want to be a gardener, not just his weeder,” joked Talbot. They don’t get much sun in their yard at home, and often drive by the community gardens and say, “Maybe we should try that.”

She and her husband usually spend part of the spring and summer in France, but they’ll be staying home this year, so they decided to take the plunge and get a garden plot.

“It’s very friendly, and you get a good sense of what people are doing and growing,” said Talbot. “I have this idea to sit in my chair, do some relaxing, and do a little gardening in this beautiful spot.”

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