By Wayne Jebian
Every spring in Hartford, four-inch pots full of cilantro, sweet peppers, hot peppers and more make their way from the Knox greenhouse on Laurel Street to the 15 community gardens around the city. Once the plants reach their destinations, gardeners from the various neighborhoods will transplant, water and nurture them until they begin to ripen in late June through mid-fall. If it is an especially good year, autumn will bring forth a bumper crop of gandules.
Gandules, also known as pigeon peas, grow in a brown pod and are guaranteed to bring back tasty memories of Puerto Rico at their very mention.
“Gandules are my favorite food!” declared Yanil Terón, Executive Director of the Center for Latino Progress – CPRF. Terón came to the United States after college to attend graduate school.
She recalled, “In Puerto Rico, my mother grew them right in the back yard. It helped us eat during the tough times, and she was a very healthy person from eating gandules.” Terón credited her mother’s good health to the peas’ high iron content.
“Faith Middleton should do a show on gandules,” joked Charmaine Craig, Director of Community Outreach at Knox, referring the the hostess of WNPR’s afternoon “Food Schmooze.”
Of course, cultivating a tropical legume in Connecticut soil has its challenges.
“Gandules take time to grow, and there has to be luck. Sometimes they come up, and sometimes they don’t,” said Jesus Quintano, a gardener at the community garden on Affleck Street. “It is very good to cook them with the pimentos and cilantro we grow here, or add some tomate frito [sauce].”
He pointed at a pile of wood at the edge of the garden, saying he hoped to get a chance to set up an open fire pit and have an island-style cookout come harvest season.
According to Quintano, the distribution system for the crops is highly informal. “People come by, and if they want something, we just give it to them,” he explained simply.
There now 270 families who participate in the 15 community gardens around Hartford. Bijal Patel, Advancement and Marketing Associate for Knox, said they will either eat what they grow, donate their crops to local food banks and shelters, or sell it to local farmers to supplement their incomes. Sharing between neighbors is also common, Patel said.
In addition to serving as the backbone for Hartford’s network of community gardens, the Knox organization also works toward the natural beautification of greater Hartford. The Knox greenhouse is the birthplace of many flowers that end up in city traffic medians. The greenhouse also runs an AmeriCorps job development program in which 15 participants, Hartford residents aged 17-30, are trained in horticulture, first aid and other skills. Knox’s backers include Aetna, The Hartford, the Connecticut and U.S. Departments of Agriculture, and the Fund For Greater Hartford.
Knox’s office manager, Iris Martinez, stood in the Affleck Community Garden looking like she was in heaven. “There’s nothing like getting your hands dirty,” she said, grinning. “It’s a great way to feed your family for pennies. Planting a seed and watching it grow…it becomes a part of yourself, a part of your spirit.”