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Feeding the Berkshires year round — one front lawn garden bed at a time

The idea is to have a year round source of fresh food. Greenagers comes back in the fall, does a seasonal planting, and puts up hoops and plastic, turning it into a greenhouse.

Great Barrington — The van door opens on Rosseter Street, releasing a bantering, sweating, dirty crew of teenagers. Varsity sports? No. Forty minutes later, this gang has installed a raised garden bed and fully planted it in place of a thicket of weeds in a sunny spot at the side of a house.

Cullen Taylor, Eric Hernandez and Silas Lane shovel soil out of the Greenagers van before they carry it to the garden bed.
Cullen Taylor, Eric Hernandez and Silas Lane shovel soil out of the Greenagers van before they carry it to the garden bed. Photo; Heather Bellow

It was the third garden bed installation of the day for the Greenagers Front Lawn Food program. With direction and assistance from crew leader Jess Wickle and Front Lawn Food program coordinator, Matt Downing, the seven teens did trail work for the last few weeks before they switched to whipping together garden beds for those who buy the service, or for those who need it and get one as a donation. The beauty of this program is that every time a business or homeowner buys a garden bed, one gets donated to someone who needs it, especially if they have children or are over 65.

“Anyone who applies gets one,” Downing said. And each one comes with a free vegetable gardening book.

The crew had just installed two beds in front of The Ultra Wellness Center in Lenox; and beds at residences in Egremont and off Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington. Tomorrow the crew heads north to build beds in Dalton and Washington.

Greenagers is on a mission. Its internships, paid employment, and apprenticeships for teens and young adults aim to engage them in environmental conservation, sustainable farming and natural resource management. Greenagers trail crews do a lot of trail building and maintenance in the Berkshires and New York State. Downing, for example, also oversees the agricultural apprentice program, in which he places young people on farms in Berkshire County, depending on the kind of work they’re interested in. Currently, he said, 12 to 15 apprentices are working at various farms.

Evan Sylbert, Liam Lane and Cullen Taylor construct the raised garden bed.
Evan Sylbert, Liam Lane and Cullen Taylor construct the raised garden bed. Photo: Heather Bellow

Downing, who has worked for Greenagers for six years, explained that this is the first year the Front Yard Food program is taking money; previously there was a raffle and donations. The program so far has built beds for 10 families per year.

The 4 x 8 beds do not yield too much produce in the summer, but the idea, Downing said, is to have more in the winter, and a year round source of fresh food. Greenagers comes back in the fall, does a seasonal planting, and puts up hoops and plastic, turning it into a greenhouse.

“You can grow a lot here year round if you do it correctly,” Downing said.

Indeed, Greenagers Executive Director Will Conklin stops by later, and points to two beds across the street that were installed by a crew last summer, and are now overflowing with corn and other vegetables. The residents of the home are out on the porch, pleased to see Conklin and show off their garden.

The crew grabs shovels and starts loading soil from the back of the van into plastic tubs. They are a merry, determined — not to mention, noisy — band of workers.

“I think there’s a sleeping baby in the house, so let’s not yell,” Downing says, suddenly realizing himself that mom Emi Sato, who was nearly in tears with gratitude over the prospect of her new garden, has just put her two-year-old, Sun, down for a nap.

Greenagers Front Lawn Food program coordinator and agricultural coordinator Matt Downing gives planting advice.
Greenagers Front Lawn Food program coordinator and agricultural coordinator Matt Downing gives planting advice. Photo: Heather Bellow

Liam Lane, 17, says the work is a welcome change from other work. “It’s great to be outdoors,” he says as he digs out a tenacious weed.

Monument Mountain Regional High School junior Cullen Taylor agreed about working outside, adding that “it’s great to learn about the environment and work with like-minded people.” He also said it was nice to be paid for such work.

Fellow Monument student, Maeven Broderick, 16, echoed Taylor. “It’s cool to get paid for doing stuff you really like to do.” She added that working outdoors was “better than doing paperwork.”

The adults who oversee the crew are equally pleased by their enthusiasm. “It’s fun to work with people who are into what they’re doing,” said crew leader Wikle, who went to forestry school, and has a landscaping and gardening background. This is Wikle’s first year with Greenagers.

Downing pulled the vegetable starters out of his truck. All were donated by Taft Farm the second they knew where they were going. “We didn’t even ask them,” Downing said. “We showed up to buy them, and they just gave them to us.”

Likewise, the soil was donated by Meadow Farm in Lee through Webster Design Landscape and Horticulture. The wood planks were milled by Conklin, a woodworker.

And just as the crew finished planting Emi Sato’s bed of kale, onions, tomatoes, chives and basil, the cries of baby Sun could be heard inside; naptime was over. Sato brought him out, and through his eyes, it was as if magic had been performed. Sun awoke to find a beautiful vegetable garden, where before his nap, none existed.

“It’s a blessing,” Sato said, hands together, as if in prayer.

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