Tall sunflowers crown plot beds in Field of Dreams Garden in Riverside. (Photo: History Cambridge)

The Cambridge Plant & Garden Club has just completed a two-year project, “Cambridge Community Gardens Today,” a 72-page booklet describing and celebrating the diversity of the 14 community gardens throughout the city. The publication includes a brief introduction highlighting the history of the gardens in Cambridge. Four pages are dedicated to each garden, with a short history, plot layout and description of the gardeners and what is grown. Photographs are plentiful, including a drone shot showing each garden in its neighborhood location. Recommendations to city staff who manage the gardens are offered in the conclusion.

The booklet can be accessed and read in full on the Cambridge Plant & Garden Club’s website. Reference copies of the printed version can be viewed at History Cambridge, the Cambridge Historical Commission and the Cambridge Public Library.

A bird’s-eye view of the Sacramento Street Community Garden in the Baldwin neighborhood. (Photo: Barry A. Hyman)

For the early antecedents of the community gardens in Cambridge, the booklet relies on a valuable find in the archives of the historical commission, a research paper from 1996 by Harvard graduate student Catherine Melina Fleming titled, “Cambridge Community Gardens: Rural Gems in an Urban Setting.” Fleming traces the lineage of the gardens to the communal land designated for the benefit of the entire community in Puritan New England. Another thread is the simple loneliness of new “urbanites” crowded into cities and searching to replace the neighborliness of village life. Perhaps most significantly, beginning in 1845, successive waves of Irish, Italian, Polish and Portuguese immigrants settled in Cambridge, followed by Russians, African Americans, West Indians and Middle Easterners. Mostly from agrarian backgrounds, these newcomers found themselves in crowded double- and triple-deckers, experiencing the shared loss of not being able to garden on their own land.

With the establishment of the Cambridge Conservation Commission in 1965, the community garden program as we know it really took shape. In the early 1970s the first community garden was designated in the already municipal field at the Cambridge Home for the Aged and Infirm. Now Neville Center, it is next to the current William G. Maher Community Garden. In the 41 years between the establishment of that first community garden in 1974 to the most recent – the Hurley Street Community Garden in East Cambridge – in 2015, much has changed in Cambridge. But to quote Fleming, “There have always been people who just love to garden: for food, for flowers, for exercise or for the joy of being outdoors who do not have the ground on which to do it.”

The concept plan for the Hurley Street Community Garden in East Cambridge by city supervising landscape architect Rob Steck.

While the gardens share social roots, each of the 14 community gardens is strikingly unique. The individual circumstances of how each garden came to be established, for example, varies widely. The Squirrel Brand Community Garden in The Port got started in 1975 when the former Squirrel Brand Nut Co. donated the use of the land in front of the factory to its employees and neighbors for use as a community garden. Gardeners in the Emily Street Garden told us the garden had evolved from an 18-year community organizing effort to achieve neighborhood priorities on the former Simplex Wire & Cable Co. site (now University Park). Similarly, the Field of Dreams Garden was developed in 1991 by a group of students and neighbors who wanted a place to garden and successfully lobbied Harvard University to use a vacant lot – a postage stamp really – off Putnam Avenue in Riverside. On the other hand, the Corcoran Park Community Garden in North Cambridge was developed by city government and designed from the start to be part of the multi-use park running along Raymond and Upland streets.

Gardeners in front of the former nut factory in The Port’s Squirrel Brand Community Garden. (Photo: History Cambridge)

But nothing gives better testament to the rich tapestry of these gardens than the devotion, skill and varied interests of the residents who garden in them. In the Sacramento Street Community Garden, for example, the profusion of tomatoes that have become available – beefsteak slicers, plums and various heirlooms – would fill a book. In the Costa Lopez Taylor Park Garden in East Cambridge, the wonderful curling shape of Egyptian onions rival the sculptural twists of the Garden’s gate. Mustard greens, bitter melons and salsify grow in The Port’s Moore Street Community Garden. In North Cambridge, the McMath Park Community Garden includes not only a profusion of vegetables, herbs and fruits, but in many plots flowers also abound: poppies, sunflowers, phlox and Shasta daisies. Clumps of milkweed attract equally colorful butterflies.

The Cambridge Plant & Garden Club gratefully acknowledges the support and enthusiasm of the city’s Community Gardens Program Coordinator, Jen Letourneau. The true partners in this project are the resident garden coordinators and gardeners who over the course of the past few years have so generously opened and shared the beauty of their gardens with us.

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission.

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2022 is “How Does Cambridge Work?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.


Marty Mauzy is co-chair of the Cambridge Community Gardens Project.