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Good things coming up in Fredericksburg’s community garden

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Ashley Davis harvest sugar snap peas in her community garden plot in Fredericksburg. Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi

Sammy Merrill grew up puttering around in the garden with his parents. He did the same with his own kids after he and his wife moved to Fredericksburg in the 1970s.

But for the past 18 years, Merrill, a retired University of Mary Washington professor, hasn’t lived in a house that offers room for a garden.

He’s tried growing a few things in pots here and there, but he just couldn’t get the satisfaction he remembered from his earlier gardening days.

So when he read in The Free Lance-Star last winter that Fredericksburg was opening a community garden, Merrill headed down to the parks and recreation office that very day.

He nabbed one of 20 plots the city’s parks and recreation department made available this year, the first year Fredericksburg has had a community garden program run out of City Hall.

The garden opened for the season in March, and since then, various crops and flowers, some in creative configurations, have risen from the grid of raised beds at the corner of Grove Avenue and Littlepage Street.

After work hours on weekdays, one can often find a few gardeners peacefully tending their plots, tucked away in a residential area of the city, next to the city’s dog park, a developing botanical garden and Cossey Pond.

For Merrill, the plot has provided a path back to a hobby he loves. If he doesn’t have too many tools to carry, he walks the few blocks between his home and the garden, and once there, he often finds like-minded gardeners with whom he can share tips and talk about successes and failures.

As the summer harvest season approaches, he’s thinking about how to plan his garden work around weekend trips to see his grandkids.

Right now, he’s enjoying broccoli and a healthy lettuce crop, and is on the cusp of harvesting his first sweet peas of the season. He’s looking forward to tomatoes, peppers, okra and butternut squash, among other items, later this summer.

The individual plots, which gardeners reserve for a $50 fee and a $25 refundable deposit for the season, are 10 feet by 20 feet, which provides ample space to grow a large amount of produce.

Gardener John Matejka has managed to pack more than 50 varieties into the plot he and his girlfriend are working.

Matejka moved to Fredericksburg last summer but couldn’t find an apartment with room for a garden. An acquaintance told him early on that the city was planning to establish community plots, and Matejka showed up on the first day to register.

As newcomers to town, Matejka said, he and his girlfriend like the community aspect of the garden.

“It’s kind of an opportunity to meet other people with similar interests,” he said.

Matejka started gardening a couple of years ago, when he was living in Little Rock, Ark., working for the AmeriCorps program. He’d been interested gardening, and that interest took off when he found himself working with people who knew a lot about it.

“Being around others who were interested, as well as trying to survive on an AmeriCorps living stipend, I thought that growing some food would be a great way to help out with not having to spend as much money at the grocery store, and would also be a good hobby,” he said.

Between the garden plot and their share with the Blenheim Organic Gardens community supported agriculture program, Matejka and his girlfriend are looking forward to a lot of produce this summer. They are planning to preserve a large amount of it through canning, freezing and drying, so they’ll enjoy the fruits of their labors year-round.

Both Merrill and Matejka say they find a sense of satisfaction in their gardening hobby.

“It’s therapeutic,” Merrill said. “When I was teaching, it took me a long time to see results. But with gardening, you put something out there, and a month later, you’re eating it.”