Community garden celebrates 50 years

The Benson-Crump Memorial Community Gardens is more than just a place where flowers, fruits and vegetables grow: It’s a place where people find peace and often times friendship.

The garden program started 50 years ago on a parcel of land on North Street that once belonged to the Asgrow Seed Company and is now part of Eisenhower Park.

Gardeners and members of the Recreation Department who started the program 50 years ago gathered Saturday to celebrate its 50 years.

Linda Ball, Recreation Department supervisor, oversees the organic community gardens, a collection of 132 20-by-30-foot plots at Eisenhower Park that residents lease for a nominal fee — $25 for the season — and then harvest whatever they choose. There are about 250 active gardeners, and often there is a waiting list to get into the program.

Thomas (T.J.) Craig, who has been gardening here for 17 years, spends about four hours a day at his plot, much of that time spent keeping the weeds at bay. He lives in an apartment so the space offered here gives him the opportunity to grow squash, watermelon, cucumbers, eggplant and much more.

Some of the other long-time gardeners remember when they had to lug their own water to their garden plot from home. Ball said many would come with 25 gallon jugs of water to get the job done.

But over the years the community gardens grew and evolved. At one point Ed Austin, former director of Milford’s Recreation Department who got the program started, had tanks brought in to hold water. Later the Public Works Department ran water lines, and Ball said a couple of gardeners helped set up a system of pipes and spigots, so that now there is running water available within 10 feet of each plot.

Tatiana Murphy has been gardening here about 10 years, and she said she spends about five hours a week tending her plot. This year she grew a watermelon for the first time, and her great grandchildren were very impressed. They helped eat the whole thing.

Murphy said gardening here offers exercise and peace of mind.

Marge Medley, another gardener, says it offers “relaxation, gets rid of the stress” by getting one grounded with the earth. Medley has been gardening here since the 1970s.

They and others who attended the ceremony Saturday said the garden community is like a family. When someone is ill or tending to loved ones with an illness, Ball will step in and help maintain their plot in their absence.

The gardeners greet each other as they head toward their plots. Some even have forged friendships outside the gardens.

Ball said it’s unusual for a community garden to last this long: The longevity here is due to the dedicated gardeners, the availability of water, and help from civic groups, like Scouts, she said. Several Scouts earned their Eagle Awards by doing projects at the gardens.

The community gardens here are so successful that a community garden in West Haven has been modeled after it.

Milford’s community garden was named the Benson-Crump Memorial Community Gardens during a ceremony in 2001 for two longtime community gardeners, Edward Benson and Floyd Crump. The two men were remembered Saturday, as today’s gardeners fondly recalled their constant presence at the gardens and their dedication to helping the program grow.
The gardens have a partnership with the Connecticut Food Bank and Plant A Row for the hungry, with several plots dedicated to growing food for those organizations.

The gardens here are in a way a throwback to older times in Milford.
“Back in the early days, Milford’s roots were dug deeply in agriculture and many beautiful farms could be found,” reads a kiosk at the gardens entrance. “During WWII, Milford was home to many Victory Gardens.”

Linda Ball credits Ed Austin with starting the program when he was the director of Milford’s Recreation Department. And Austin credits Ball, a city girl who once tried to grow string beans in a flower pot, with taking a small program of just 20 gardening plots and turning it into an amazing program with 132 plots.

“It has to be the best community garden in the state,” Austin said.