Can you dig it? Community gardens to expand in Burlington County

Mary Pat Robbie, director of resource conservation, checks on existing community garden plots at the Burlington County Agricultural Center, which will be replaced by 104 plots.

Dare to think, or dream, about spring -- despite Punxsutawney Phil.  

Especially if you are a gardener.

A community garden with 104 new plots is being created by the Burlington County Department of Resource Conservation at a preserved former dairy farm in Moorestown with the hope they will be ready in May.    

The plots at the Burlington County Agricultural Center will replace 60 existing plots and for the first time will offer aisles wide enough for vehicles, even the family Jeep, leading to the beds.  

“You will be able to drive up to your plot,” said Mary Pat Robbie, the department director.  Previously, gardeners would “have to park in a lot and lug everything.”

Many community gardens are in urban areas, including Philadelphia and Camden, to accommodate city dwellers who don’t have backyards.  But the gardens at the county’s Ag Center are among a growing number of community gardens springing up in the suburbs.  

Several townships in the area, including Mount Laurel, Evesham, and Cherry Hill, also offer community gardens to their residents. Another cluster of these gardens is tucked into Burlington County’s Pennington Park in Delanco.

“It’s the whole movement around urban agriculture. … People want to be more connected  to the food they eat,” said Monique Purcell, assistant secretary to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.  “They want to know where it comes from and they want healthy, organic food.”

Robbie said many county residents now live in townhouses, condominiums, and apartment complexes and welcome having a place they can go to plant and harvest crops. The county charges between $25 and $50 a year annually for plots that range in size, up to 18 by 24 feet for a full plot, she said.

Jerry Mascia, director of municipal services in Mount Laurel, said the community gardens created in the township were so popular that within a couple of years they went from 25 plots to 50.  "It's a bringing together of a community of people interested in planting," he said.  

People get “a lot of pleasure in having a garden and they’re growing their own produce, which translates into healthy eating,” Robbie said.  Many of the participants have downsized from bigger properties and missed digging in the dirt.  

The county also has set aside about eight raised garden beds at the Ag Center and at Pennington Park for handicapped gardeners.  

“They go out there and plant vegetables and flowers and then water and weed the gardens three times a week,” said Charlene Tinnick, a director at Arc of Burlington County, a nonprofit that offers services for people with intellectual and physical disabilities.   “It’s therapy -- it gives them a sense of accomplishment to see something start from seed and grow into a plant."

The community gardens also play a role in keeping farmland from vanishing. The landscape in once-rural Burlington County is rapidly changing, and even the Ag Center is surrounded by construction projects.  Housing developments and office parks are replacing many of the farms in Moorestown and its neighboring towns.  

Robbie said the creation of new community gardens at the Ag Center will cost about $300,000 and will include irrigation lines and a tool shed for the gardeners.  

The 104 plots encompass about 1.5 acres and will replace the adjacent existing plots,  which total about a half-acre.  Robbie said drainage problems and other issues have plagued the current garden area.

The gardens are at the former Winner’s Dairy Farm, a 68-acre parcel that the county purchased in 2005 after residents protested against a proposal to build a large commercial development on the land.  Part of the land is in Mount Laurel.

The farm sits adjacent to Lockheed Martin’s Moorestown plant.        

There has been a waiting list for the plots, but Robbie said the new gardens should be able to accommodate everyone on that list and several new gardeners who are county residents.  

Part of the Ag Center is leased to a sheep farmer.  The center also hosts an education facility and a popular farmer’s market that is open between May and October, on Saturday mornings. Weddings are held in the former dairy’s distinctive mint-green barn.  Weddings in rustic barn settings have become trendy in recent years.

Robbie said five weddings were staged at the barn last summer and five more have been booked so far for this year.  She said the county plans to add lighting to the barn area this year and to make other improvements.  

Anyone interested in leasing a community garden plot may call the county offices at 856-642-3850.