Haddonfield Community Garden to share its crops with the local food bank

A sunflower is part of the newly expanded Haddonfield Community Gardens in Crows Woods.
A sunflower is part of the newly expanded Haddonfield Community Gardens in Crows Woods. (BARBARA BOYER / Staff)
Posted: July 24, 2012

A bumper crop of vegetables and fruits at the Haddonfield Community Gardens is overflowing to the point that local residents plan to share with the local food bank.

This week those with extra tomatoes, peppers, or squash can drop donations in bins that will be distributed immediately to those in need.

"We have a real shortage of fresh produce," said Lydia Cipriani of the South Jersey Food Bank in Pennsauken. "We have refrigerated space and trucks to distribute it immediately, but there is always a shortage of fresh produce."

This year, newly elected garden president Paul Schmeck oversaw a 5,600-foot expansion at Haddonfield's Community Garden in Crows Woods, eliminating a long-standing waiting list.

"Anyone who lives in town and wants to get involved should be able to," said Schmeck, 43, who started gardening there with his children about 10 years ago. "It's a great thing for people to grow their own vegetables."

An early onset of warm weather this year also has helped the 100 residents farming about 75 plots on more than 21,000 square feet. Extra produce last year prompted the club to contact the food bank.

"We're hoping that it takes off, and we can help feed a lot of people," said Haddonfield resident Brenda Zadjeika, 53, who initiated the effort, which Cipriani said was well received.

Schmeck said there was a steady interest among Haddonfield residents in cultivating the 10-by-20-foot plots. He encourages those who want to join Crows Woods gardeners to apply now so plans can be made for the spring. Only borough residents qualify.

There are rules. Gardeners must agree to weed and maintain their plots. They are also encouraged to avoid toxic pesticides and fertilizers. Schmeck wants to hold workshops and post more educational information on the website ( http://crowswoodsgardeners.com), hoping to make the gardens completely organic.

Schmeck raised annual dues from $10 to $20 to help finance improvements, which include replacing the pavilion.

The borough provides water, but the club paid for the water lines.

Now, plots are filled with towering tomato plants and cornstalks, colorful flowers, and rows and rows of veggies.

Schmeck stumbled across the gardens when his twins (who now have their own plot) played soccer at the Crows Woods fields. Having seen his grandfather grow much of his own food, he took a natural interest.

The first Crows Woods garden sprouted possibly three decades ago after a local civil engineer, Walter Saladik, began pestering officials to clean up the dump in the lower end of the borough, along South Atlantic Avenue.

Saladik made a deal with contractors working on Kings Highway to dump concrete and construction material in the landfill if the contractors donated work and used their heavy equipment to improve the site. It took years.

"I think Walt spent the last 20 years of his life to get that area filled," said his wife, Jeanne, 85, on a recent visit to the gardens. Her husband died of cancer in 2002, at 78. Before his Saladik died, Haddonfield Mayor Tish Colombi officiated at a flagpole dedication near the garden that recognized Saladik's achievements.

"If you knew Walt, his enthusiasm was just boundless," his wife said. Crows Woods was his passion and the garden was, in part, inspired by Cherry Hill's community garden. "He just quietly kept at it."

After the dump was filled and clean topsoil elevated the location, paths were carved through the woods and grass paved the way for soccer fields. Plays & Players, a community theater program, also is there.

The gardens started after Saladik planted crops near the road, riding his bike in the morning and evening to care for the site and raise and lower a flag each day. He invited friends to join him and expanded to five gardens.

Eventually, the soccer players wanted more space, but the gardeners did not want to give up the land. In the early 1990s, they formed a club with about 20 people and moved the gardens away from Atlantic Avenue to a nearby spot off an access road beside Plays & Players.

"The borough has been very nice to us," said Kathi Stokes, 62, past president and a founding member of the club.

Members are quick to point out that the group includes people of all ages with diverse backgrounds. Former Assemblywoman Mary Previte, 79, is among those spotted there each year.

Karynna Baresel, 37, a teacher who lives in Haddonfield, identified herself as a newbie as she pulled weeds, pruned plants, and filled a basket with tomatoes. "I have a place at home, but we wanted more space and to try new things like broccoli and brussels sprouts."

Caroline Berger, 60, said she grew up on a farm in Illinois. When she started her garden two decades ago, her children were young and helped. Their interest has waned, she said, leaving her feeling like the "little red hen" at times. Still, she finds the gardens relaxing.

"It's cheaper than therapy," Berger joked. "And, there's intense pleasure eating something you have grown."

Contact Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838 or bboyer@phillynews.com.

Fresh food donations from the public will be accepted at the Haddonfield Community Gardens, just off Upland Avenue. People can also call the food bank at 856-662-4884 to find the closest drop-off site. Information also is available at http://www.foodbanksj.org/

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