by Susan Hellauer
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Ever dream of living in an edible village? Well, guess what, Nyack? You do! And why stop there? It’s an organic edible village, and it’s all free for the taking.
For almost four years now, Nyack residents and visitors have been ambling past a bumper crop of front-yard mini-farms offering their bounty to passers-by both casual and intentional. And if you think those “Please Pick” signs are the work of some environmental org, think again. They are the brainchild of one brilliant, big-hearted Nyack resident.
The seed of an idea . . .
The seed was sown in the summer of 2015, when writer and gardener Suzanne Barish, walking in downtown Nyack, passed a front-yard peach tree laden with uneaten, rotting fruit. Along that same route, lined with sunny, manicured front yards, walked some of our less fortunate neighbors, on their way to a meal at a local soup kitchen. Barish might have thought, “What a waste!” and moved on. Instead, she thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to grow food in our front yards and make it available to people?”
It wasn’t long before the nascent “Please Pick Project” was adopted by half a dozen Nyack homes, along with the Nyack Center, which was on board at Barish’s first ask. “In that first year I talked to a lot of people about it, and people set up a lot of front yard gardens,” she told Earth Matters. “It really worked!”
The former English professor and Maine transplant began bartering her writing skills with local farms and nurseries in exchange for materials. “I got the free seedlings, set up and planted the gardens at different spots, and then everybody took care of their gardens independently,” she said. And that’s still the pattern today.
By 2016, that same row of front yards hosted gardens of fresh fruits and vegetables, free for the taking by anyone who walked by. Nyack’s Please Pick Project today boasts about 20 sidewalk-accessible front-yard gardens.
Please Pick Project: heart and soul
While those front-yard gardens in the Nyacks remain an important part of Please Pick, founder Suzanne Barish soon began to see the project in another light: “I discovered, right at the beginning, that it makes so much sense to work these gardens into the fabric of the town, in places where there are already volunteers and a strong community presence, along with people who are most likely to pick the food where they are already visiting.”
For Barish, the real “soul” of her project thrives at Nyack’s community places: Nyack Center, The Nyack Library, the John Green House at the foot of Main, and up at Waldron Terrace. “It’s in these places where you have the people growing food for the people, in safe spaces,” she said.
It was the Nyack Center, which grew a lot of food right away, that quickly became the beating heart of Please Pick. To make things self-sustaining, Barish has helped the beloved community center establish a perennial “food forest,” requiring a minimum amount of care. Nyack Center director Kim Cross is raking in the benefits for the local kids who attend after-school and summer programs. The latest ambitious, delicious project is the Monday “Pick and Cook.” “We have a chef come in to lead the students around the Nyack Please Pick gardens and harvest what’s ripe and fresh,” Cross said. The children then prepare a dish under the chef’s supervision and enjoy it together. “The kids are trying different foods and herbs that they might not try in their own lives, and learning about where food comes from, about science, the earth, and other topics,” she added. “And it’s a great project for building community, too.”
The historic John Green House at the foot of Main Street was another early Please Pick participant. John Green Preservation Coalition Treasurer Ken Sharp remains a believer, and maintains the garden boxes in front of the site, where he meets and greets both Nyack regulars and out-of-town visitors. “This is our third year, and our Please Pick planters have become a community ‘watering hole,’” he told EM. Most gardeners get excited if something new has appeared since yesterday, but Please Pick has turned that on its head for Sharp. “I go out to water the boxes and it’s wonderful to see that there were tomatoes and peppers there yesterday, that are missing today.”
There’s a Facebook page and an eye-catching website, but is there an organizational structure beneath the Please Pick Project? “It’s just me,” said Barish. “It pretty much runs itself now.”
As the project has grown, so have donations of materials, like compost and seedling donations. “It doesn’t cost any money, really,” she explained. “It’s just a matter of my time.” Some of that time is spent in workshops on sustainable growing and healthy eating with schoolchildren as part of Science & Outdoor Alliance of Rockland (SOAR), an educational nonprofit founded by Nyack Center director Kim Cross, former Nyack Mayor Jen Laird White, and Laurie Seeman, Founder/Director of Earth Matters’ sponsor Strawtown Studio.
It’s no surprise that the Please Pick Project idea has taken root beyond its native Nyack. Barish gets regular emails about startups nearby in New Jersey, Tarrytown, and here in Rockland, as well as far-off places. She’s helped people set up Please Pick Projects in Falls Church, Virginia, and another in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Prospective Please Pick Project planter?
In fact, Barish gets so many inquiries from prospective Please Pick planters that she wrote an article for the project website with instructions for getting a garden going.
The basics? If you’ve got a sunny front yard, you can be part of this community project. “It has to be accessible from the sidewalk, and in a safe place,” said Barish. “You can’t have a garden at the curb.” (Just think about dogs, and cars . . . ) Veggies in raised boxes at the property line, dwarf fruit trees, or grape and sweet pea vines over a fence (all organically raised) are obvious choices.
Need more help getting started? Barish suggested the Nyack Seed Exchange at The Nyack Library, which raises its own Please Pick garden every year. It also has seeds, seedlings and good advice suited to local growing conditions.
When to get digging? “Anytime at all,” Barish said. “Fall is a great time to make plans for next year’s garden, and I’m always happy to talk to people about future Please Pick plans.” (Find contact information at PleasePickProject.com.)
Gardeners near and far can also check out Barish’s 2016 Tedx Talk Creating an Edible Town in New York, which recounts Please Pick’s inspiring origin story and basic mechanics.
- Please Pick Project website: www.pleasepickproject.com includes contact information and basic requirements for setting up a please pick project of your own
- Please Pick Project on Facebook
- The Nyack Library hosts a Please Pick garden and the Nyack Seed Exchange
- The Nyack Center: www.nyackcenter.org
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Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique, Dying to Bloom, and Strawtown Studio.