Susan Stemper weeds her plot in the Harpswell Community Garden. Stemper chairs the committee that oversees the garden and has grown vegetables there since 2017. (REBECCA NORDEN-BRIGHT PHOTO)

When Jane Covey began volunteering and growing at the Harpswell Community Garden around 2012, the garden saw persistent problems with drainage, water access and soil quality.

“The first season we tried to garden was a total disaster,” Covey said. “The garden had no electricity. We had very poor water, we had terrible soil, we had about every obstacle you could imagine.”

Judith Stanton, who also began gardening around 2012, had hoped to use the space at the Community Garden because her property on Bailey Island was too small to grow vegetables. Stanton remembered that in the early days, gardeners often had to bring their own water from home because the wells around the garden consistently ran dry. 

“It wasn’t the most ideal community garden,” Stanton said.

Despite its issues in the early days, the Harpswell Community Garden — created about 10 years ago as part of the Mitchell Field Master Plan — has grown and prospered with the help of volunteers and grants from local organizations such as the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.

The Community Garden, at George J. Mitchell Field, contains 25 plots rented to gardeners on a yearly basis, as well as areas dedicated to the Common Good Garden, which grows food to donate locally. Last year, the Common Good Garden grew more than 1,600 pounds of produce for donation, of which 900 pounds were donated within Harpswell. The remainder was given to the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick.

Susan Stemper, chair of the volunteer committee that oversees the Community Garden, said that it serves as a valuable space for the community. Several times a summer, the garden hosts kids from the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s Nature Day Camp.

“The campers, when they come, are actually helping us tend the Common Good gardens,” Stemper said. “They’re helping us harvest for the programs to which we donate the food. And that is a great opportunity for kids who aren’t exposed to gardening to learn about organic gardening at a nice, comfortable level.”

The Community Garden’s “raison d’etre,” in Stemper’s view, is to provide a community of gardeners who can grow together and learn from each other. In the garden’s first couple of years, this community consisted of just a few Harpswell residents. Now, all 25 plots are rented out to 17 gardeners, many of whom are new this year.

“There’s a core group of gardeners that are there year after year and then a rotating group who come for a few years and then move on to whatever else,” Covey said.

A sign marks a plot for the Common Good Garden within the Harpswell Community Garden. Anyone with a plot in the Community Garden must contribute time to the Common Good Garden, which grows produce for donation. (REBECCA NORDEN-BRIGHT PHOTO)

As Harpswell’s population increases, so too does the number of gardeners in search of both a space to grow and a community that shares their passion.

“At least three of our new plot holders are new to Harpswell,” Stemper said. “The people who are moving to Harpswell are saying, ‘Hey, this is my community. I want to be part of it.'”

Like Stanton, most people who rent out plots lack suitable space or sunlight on their own property and thus rely on the space at Mitchell Field to grow their vegetables, flowers or herbs. Gardeners can tend their plots on their own time, but are required to dedicate time to general maintenance and tending the Common Good Garden.

For this purpose, the Community Garden organizes work days for volunteers, including those who do not rent out plots, to come together. Upcoming work days are July 13, Sept. 10 and 21, and Oct. 15 and 19, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day.

The work days “are great opportunities, not just for gardeners to meet their required service hours to the garden, but also for members of the community who maybe say, ‘I don’t need to garden there, but hey, they’re doing good stuff and I’d love to come help,'” Stemper said.

The committee, composed of five members, is largely dedicated to fundraising and pursuing grants to keep the garden afloat. The Land Trust is a major sponsor of the garden, contributing through the dedicated Harpswell School and Community Garden Fund.

Thanks to grants and donations, the garden finally solved its water and drainage issues, building raised beds and installing a solar-powered irrigation system that ensures gardeners have consistent access to water.

“The committee and the intrepid gardeners persevered, and now it’s a very productive place and personally I think it’s a real asset to the community,” Covey said. “It gives people — if they’re new or if they’re old to gardening — a place to come together and to not only grow what they want to grow but to learn from each other and share the experience.”

The Garden will host an open house on July 30 to bring the community together and celebrate 10 years of gardening. 

“I think for all community gardens, the biggest issue is: How do we revitalize year after year?” Covey said. “That’s what I hope for — that it goes on for the next 20, 30, 40 years.”