Potatoes and a pennywhistle on Somerset Street

In the Garden
By ELIZABETH RAU  |  April 2, 2010

Drive south on Broad Street past the markets and churches, take a left on Somerset and there, in a clearing of raised garden beds behind a chain-link fence, you will find Phil Edmonds with his peas.

Actually, they are pea seeds. And on this sunny day they are going into the ground. His hands are his best tools. Edmonds teases the soil with his fingers, pokes six holes in the dirt, and drops the shriveled seeds down, one by one.

The simplicity of planting peas never ceases to charm Edmonds, who’s been doting on his vegetables at the Somerset Community Garden in South Providence for the last 26 years. He’s the fellow wearing a wool watch cap and sitting on an overturned bucket under a grape arbor playing Celtic tunes on his pennywhistle.

“We, as a culture, have largely lost touch with nature,” says Edmonds. “We don’t even notice the single joys of every day — the birdsong, the beautiful sky. We’re always hur-rying about with many things on our minds. With gardening you find out you can’t rush the seasons. You get to touch the earth in a special way.”

Community gardens are popping up all over the city as more and more people pay attention to where their food comes from and what they eat. Of the 30 gardens in Providence, 18 are operated by neighborhood groups and the city’s parks department, but 12, including Somerset, are run by the Southside Community Land Trust, a nonprofit group largely responsible for transforming trash-strewn lots in the city’s poorest neighborhood into tidy gardens brimming with vegetables, fruit, and people.

The gardening boom is so big the Land Trust is holding free workshops through the fall to teach people how to start a garden, as well as care for fruit trees, preserve food, and even raise urban chickens. “There’s a huge push in Providence to get more space for growing vegetables,” says Erika Rumbley, the group’s community garden network coordina-tor. “It’s really exciting.”

Most know Edmonds, 58, as a musician (he’s an accordionist) who plays with several local bands, including the Gnomes. But he can also find his way around an asparagus patch. This passion took root in Killaloe, County Clare, the village on the banks of the River Shannon in western Ireland where Edmonds grew up. His father, Edward, kept a gar-den of carrots, cabbage, onions, rhubarb, and, of course, potatoes, which Edmonds remembers digging up.

In 1965, a few years after Edward died, the family — Edmonds and his mother, Maura, and her three other children — moved to South Providence to live with a relative who owned a rooming house on Princeton Avenue. The asphalt backyard made gardening impossible. In the early 1980s, a friend took Edmonds to the Somerset garden, and in no time he was hooked.

Somerset is the Land Trust’s biggest garden, nearly one acre of raised beds, divided only by chicken-wire fences, ropey vines, or bamboo. The 60 families from various countries — Laos, Liberia, Vietnam, to name a few — work in close quarters from early spring through the fall and that intimacy creates a community spirit that ripples through the neighborhood.

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