A green space that grows plants that are unique to different parts of the world
The Somerville Community Growing Center is one of four recipients of the 2021 Grants for Plants program to help expand its Community Herb Project. The Center is a quarter of an acre of public land hosting a myriad of regional plants to be cultivated by volunteers, located near Union Square. The project, which involves the growth of culinary and medicinal herbs as well as a variety of educational projects, has received $5,000 from Mountain Rose Herbs through the grant.
The Community Herb Project facilitates equitable access to herbs, from accessibility of the space to involvement in decision-making in what is grown.
“It’s really important to have this space here and have it cater to as many people in Somerville as possible,” said volunteer Bryan Terrazas, “advertising and making sure the space is open to others, making sure it’s being used by as many communities as possible and not just the few that are gentrifying Somerville.”
Terrazas, a local plant enthusiast, found his own interest in gardening through an herb called quirquiña, also known as Bolivian coriander; his grandmother gave him some seeds and a love for plants bloomed with the herbs.
“The Growing Center tries to grow plants that are special to different kinds of people, like for example, from Latin America, so growing quirquiña would be super cool,” said Terrazas, “just to think about this herb which is so special for people in Bolivia, to see that here and bring that special quality here.”
Site coordinator Paula Jordan, who runs the Herb Project and submitted the application for the grant, also emphasized the importance of allowing community members to dictate what is grown.
“That was one of the things when we wrote the grant. We thought about how can we increase access, not only to use the herbs,” said Jordan, “but then also listening to the community, how they would like to use them.”
The Growing Center has reached out to groups around Somerville to determine what herbs people want most. The local food pantry asks for culinary herbs like basil and oregano, according to Jordan, while children’s programs tend to ask for scent-forward herbs like lemon balm and lavender.
Kids’ programs are a large part of the Growing Center and the Herb Project. Becca Laudermilk was last season’s Garden Educator for the center’s summer program with the YMCA, which focuses on nature education for children and includes working with herbs in the garden. Activities with herbs included making potpourri, tea blends, and pesto, according to Laudermilk. She noted that when children would bring these projects home, it created a positive response in the parents as well, and parents would often come back with their kids to pick herbs.
“It touches more than the kids in the community but the grown-ups too, that wouldn’t necessarily know to come to the Somerville Community Garden,” said Laudermilk.
A large goal of the project, emphasized heavily in their application for the grant, is to highlight the expertise of Black and Indigenous herbalists within the Somerville community and specifically offering compensation for their time.
“We have the funds to pay people, and that’s different than asking folks for something you don’t have a relationship with, respecting that and thinking of that in a community scale,” said Jordan.
Since receiving the grant, they have hosted a number of events with this aim: bringing urban farmer Sabrina Pilet-Jones to speak on the spiritual practices of herbs, handing out free copies of Sam: The Junior Herbalist—which features a young Black protagonist—and inviting Outdoor Afro to host a tea-blending event with herbs from the garden, according to Jordan.
Long-time volunteer and licensed herbalist Alexandra Williams was offered payment for her work in the Herb Project. She has been heavily involved in its development with her years of experience in herbalism, but she decided to stay a volunteer as a white herbalist, emphasizing the need for funds to go to BIPOC. “One of the big goals of the grant, and of Paula and the Center in general, is expanding outward and trying to bring in more folks, and you have to pay people for their time,” said Williams. “You have to pay people well for their time, and lots of folks have not been paid for their time for way, way too long.”
This outward expansion means widening the array of voices within the herb garden.
“The idea is my voice isn’t the voice talking about herbs even though I love this,” Jordan said, “I want to invite others in, and then they’re the ones with the voice of how we care for and use the plants.”
This article was produced in partnership with Professor Gino Canella’s grassroots journalism class at Emerson College. It is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org.