The pile of marsh hay, or Eel Grass as it is known locally, on the slipway to Squeteague Harbour at Cataumet (a village in the township of Bourne, Cape Cod), is the sign that John York, who lives next door, is busy with the Valley Farm community garden.
This is an excellent project for which John must take much credit. He took me there yesterday to show me the 76 plots which are being nurtured by local people to provide nutritious fruit and vegetables. These were created from a rough, overgrown site.
John takes the marsh hay there to put nitrogen into the soil. He is growing a strip of pumpkins, squash and water melons on the edge of the garden, which he nurtures with the marsh hay. It takes a year to turn into compost which he then puts on the gardens, planting a new strip of pumpkins with a new lot of marsh hay. Gradually, through this process, the garden soil becomes more fertile.
There is also a thrift shop and this with the garden are part of a joint venture of the Bourne Historical Society, Cataumet Schoolhouse Preservation Group and the Bourne Society for Historic Preservation.
Originally the land was part of the Barnstable County Hospital for tuberculosis patients. A farmer grew vegetables and fruit for the hospital and lived in the building which now houses the thrift shop. In the mid 1980s it was occupied by physicians, but then was empty for 20 years. The hospital became senior-living accommodation and, in mitigation for this development, the town won a conservation restriction (CR) to protect the land. The CR was an agreement between the county (Barnstable, the landlord) and the town (Bourne).
When the three community organisations took over the land, they had to get the restriction lifted to allow agriculture to take place once again. This was a long and complex process. First they had to apply to town boards: the Bourne conservation dept and board of selectmen (town council) and then to the Massachusetts office of environmental affairs for sign off. Finally, they had to file the amendment at the registry of deeds for the property.
The thrift shop is a healthy concern; it is run by the enthusiastic Diane Speers, the volunteer shop manager, and her dozen or so helpers. The shop is next door to the garden which has 76 plots: two are for Bourne Middle School teachers, parents, children; four are for the Bourne food pantry (food bank), providing a diversity of produce through the season and servicing 300 families in Bourne. The plots are affordable at about $20 rent a year.
The groups pay the county 1$ a year for use of building and land, and are responsible for maintenance and repairs, of which they have done a great deal. So the county benefits from improved buildings and good stewardship of the land.
This all helps to raise money for the Cataumet School House, a historic building dating from 1894. The school closed in 1930 and became a community hall. A local non-profit was formed to operate it, then this disbanded and the school deteriorated. There was then a controversy because the Historical Commission wanted to move it to a private campus of historic buildings. The community was divided, but the selectmen voted to keep it and it was restored with funds which were raised over a five-year period.
The apple tree which stood outside the school dated from about 1955 (the tree is visible in the photo on this link). John York, who is an expert in such matters, reckons that it is a new variety of tree. Unfortunately it was felled and the stump was moved to the community garden. As the shoots grow John mounds dirt around them so they grow their own roots. He hopes in time to propagate this historic tree.
These efforts represent a number of campaign successes for the community groups. The community garden and the thrift shop are helping to protect the historic environment of Bourne and Cataumet schoolhouse, as well as providing nutritious food for families who need it.