Each year, on the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving, The Frederick Gunn School shares the joy of the holiday season by opening its campus to the community of Washington and presenting the annual Friend of the Green Award. This year, in lieu of an in-person gathering, the school hosted a virtual celebration to present the 2021 Friend of the Green Award to Judea Garden. The award will be accepted by Denise Arturi, Judea Garden Manager and Head Gardener.
The virtual awards ceremony was held via Zoom on Saturday, November 20. All residents and business owners in Washington and the surrounding area were invited to attend. View the event recording here.
In an interview at Judea Garden last week, Arturi described her affiliation with Judea Garden as serendipitous. In 2008, she was working in the Assessor's Office and had just completed a course at the University of Connecticut to become a Certified Master Gardener. Growing up, she loved spending time in her family's garden in Greenwich and was inspired to complete the intensive horticultural training required to earn her certification. "The idea of becoming a Master Gardener is you give back. All the knowledge the university gives you is now there for you to help people in your area," she said.
She recalled that she left her job at Town Hall in September 2008 because she and her husband, Peter, who worked for Callaway Golf, were planning to move to California. When the financial crisis hit that October, his job transfer and their West Coast move were canceled. Around the same time, Ann Burton and Marlene Smith, parishioners of St. John's Church, decided to start a community garden as a way to help those in the community who were negatively impacted by the downturn in the economy. Since the church did not have space for a garden, Steep Rock Association gave them half an acre of land off Christian Street, at the entrance to Maricostas Preserve, and Arturi was brought in to manage the project.
"It was really going to be a community program, a community effort," Arturi said, recalling that there was no food bank in Washington at that time, so volunteers brought the fresh vegetables they grew on their small plot to the senior center. They later moved to Town Hall, which was deemed more accessible, dropping off coolers full of food so people could take what they needed. The volunteers grow tomatoes, greens, including collards and kale, beans, herbs, summer and winter squash, potatoes, carrots, even zinnias. They also experiment with growing small amounts of okra, soybeans, tomatillos and ground cherries, just to keep things interesting from a gardening perspective. This summer, they grew Italian cucuzza squash, which is aptly nicknamed "baseball bat" squash, she said.
The garden is tended by a core group of about 20 volunteers who give their time and talent at least one day a week during the growing season, and are supported by many more individuals and groups, including the Rotary Club and students from local schools, including The Frederick Gunn School, who helped to build the deer fencing protecting the garden rows, and helped with fall clean up this year. Students from Washington Primary School planted seeds for the garden last spring, and students in the Shepaug Agriscience program grew seedlings in their greenhouse.
"People give up a lot of hours of their time. They come in the cold, they come in the rain, because they want to help. They want to do something," said Arturi, who marveled a bit that the first crop was harvested in the fall of 2009, and this fall marked the end of Judea Garden's 13th season. What began as a small, organic, community garden in Washington has grown to serve people in surrounding towns including New Milford, Torrington, and Warren. Volunteers grow, harvest and distribute over 36,000 pounds of fresh produce via three locations: Town Hall, the Washington-Warren Food Bank, and New Milford Food Bank.
Those who volunteer benefit as much as the recipients, although in different ways. "To be outside working, to connect with the soil, it's magical," Arturi said, noting that the volunteers worked straight through the pandemic. They socially distanced and were masked, but they kept coming. "The fun thing, too, is all the individuals become their own community. They watch out for each other, support each other, joke with each other," she said.
In 2014, Judea Garden became part of Steep Rock Association under the leadership of then Board President Gene Pinover. There are plans for Camp House, a small red house adjacent to the garden, to be renovated as a gathering space and museum celebrating the history of the land and Steep Rock, and for new barns to be built on the property to house the gardening equipment that is now stored off site.
Walking past a row of sage this week, Arturi noted that the plants would be harvested in time for Thanksgiving. Garlic, which is the earliest crop to be harvested in the spring, was planted this fall, and she may leave some of the heartier greens though the winter, in the event that the weather is warm enough for them to continue producing. Farther afield, a beekeeper was carefully tending to the Steep Rock beehives. Preparations for the next season are ongoing, with the goal of helping those in need.
The Friend of the Green Award is presented annually to honor an individual or group that has contributed to the well-being of the town of Washington through their volunteer efforts. Past recipients have included: the Town of Washington's COVID Response Team (2020); Fran and Michael Keilty (2019); Denise DeVault Trevenen (2018); Lake Waramaug Association, accepted by co-presidents Anne Block and Gail Berner (2017); the Washington Lions Club, accepted by John Quist, president (2016); Sheila Anson, Washington’s Town Clerk and Vice Chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission (2015); the Institute of American Indian Studies (2014); JoAnne Torti of the After School Arts Program (2013); The Washington Fire Department and Washington Town Hall employees, accepted by First Selectman Mark Lyon and Fire Chief Mark Showalter (2012); Kirsten Peckerman, Steep Rock Association board member (2011), and Phil and Gretchen Farmer P’05, board members and past presidents of the Gunn Memorial Library and Museum (2010).