MILBRIDGE — Much like a garden perennial, Incredible Edible Milbridge has grown, well, like a weed.
The original planting of seven small community vegetable gardens scattered throughout town has grown into a network of both large and small gardens planted by Milbridge Elementary School children.
Incredible Edible’s roots have spread beyond their initial niche to include cooking classes and even the forthcoming publication of a cookbook.
Incredible Edible “brings people together,” said Chris Kuhni, executive director of the Women’s Health Resource Library, which is behind the effort. In fact, the idea for the cookbook, “The Humble Veggie,” came from the fact that garden visitors enjoyed swapping recipes and cooking advice.
It all began in 2013 after Kuhni read an online article and watched a video about an Incredible Edible garden in England. Because many local people like to plant gardens, she thought it was a good fit for Milbridge.
But the reasons it works go deeper. The gardens provide food for the community as well as exercise and social time. In a grocery store, people select vegetables and put them in their carts. In the community gardens, people are much more involved with their food.
“They’re out in the field. They’re getting fresh air. They’re moving. They’re getting their exercise as they’re getting their food,” said Kuhni. “As a health care provider, I love that piece of it.”
Kuhni also wanted a community garden to erase the stigma that comes from need. Anyone, regardless of financial situation, is welcome to pick vegetables from any of the gardens. The two biggest gardens include one measuring approximately 14,000 square feet at the Red Barn Motel and another one measuring about 25,000 square feet that is new this year at the Milbridge Commons, a new waterfront park now under development. Smaller pocket gardens also are located at the Bayside Shop ’n Save, 44 Degrees North Restaurant, Schooner Gallery, Milbridge Medical Center and Narraguagus Bay Health Care.
Not long after the first gardens were planted, Kuhni said, a board member was carrying her Incredible Edible tote bag when a woman approached her and thanked her for the gardens. This person had been dealing with hunger and the gardens helped her feed her family.
Another woman was reluctant to visit the gardens and pick vegetables because she wasn’t in need. However, her family members convinced her. “She saw people in the garden picking their vegetables and she went, ‘Wow, this is community,’” said Kuhni.
As word spread about the gardens, everyone has been supportive. In fact, Bayside does not see the gardens as competition, even though they offer free the same kinds of vegetables that the store sells, said Zabet Neucollins, Incredible Edible’s community outreach coordinator.
“Bayside has been super supportive,” she said.
Like the roots of perennial plants, community support has grown and spread. In 2015, teacher Suzen Polk-Hoffses visited the garden for a workshop, said Pamela Dyer Stewart, Incredible Edible coordinator.
“She saw the value in bringing this into the schools,” said Stewart.
Now, students at Milbridge Elementary help plant the gardens in the spring. Stewart said involving the school has been a success.
“We have a comfort level being in the dirt,” she said.
Not only that but also the kids tell their parents about the gardens, spreading the word. When the children come to pick the vegetables they planted, they bring their families, said Michael Hayden, a local farmer who tills and maintains the two largest gardens because, “I like to grow stuff.”
The gardens also offer a special benefit to older people who like to garden and pick their own vegetables, but can no longer keep up with all the work required to do it themselves, he said.
The Incredible Edible gardens offer a variety of vegetables including green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, snap peas, broccoli, lettuce cucumbers, zucchini and kale. Many herbs are grown. Strawberries also can be found in the pocket gardens, which are maintained by interns.
People are excited when the vegetables ripen and much of it “has a tendency to get harvested a little early,” Hayden said.
Stewart said the library hopes to release the cookbook, which will be bilingual, in time for Milbridge Days, scheduled for July 25-28.
“It’s designed to be a fairly simple vegetable cookbook,” said Stewart, describing its contents as “simple recipes and simple ingredients.”
Kuhni said WHRL is offering vegetable cooking classes. A harvest table cooking class runs from July through March at the Maine Seacoast Mission campus in Cherryfield. Others are in the works.
“We’ve wanted to get the cooking piece in there for a long time,” Stewart said.