A Q&A with Denise Arturi, the master gardener behind Washington's Judea Garden

On Oct. 1, Denise Arturi became Judea Garden's head gardener and manager. She's been a part of the garden for almost as long as it has existed.

On Oct. 1, Denise Arturi became Judea Garden’s head gardener and manager. She’s been a part of the garden for almost as long as it has existed.

Contributed Photo

WASHINGTON — Denise Arturi’s position as the steady hand behind harvests at Judea Garden was a case of good timing, she said.

She became a master gardener just as the Judea Garden began, soon after the recession in 2008, when Arturi started volunteering. As the garden has grown — moving from a church to Steep Rock Association land — she has only become more involved.

On Oct. 1, she became Judea’s full-time gardener and manager. It’s a position she hopes will ensure the garden’s ability to donate foods and teach people about gardening and volunteer work for years to come.

Although she runs the garden, it’s community members who make it work by volunteering their time, planting and harvesting, she said.

Q: You’ve been a master gardener for several years. For those of us that don’t know: What does that mean? How is a master different, than a layman gardener, and what is something you learned in the process of becoming a master that surprised you?

The Master Gardener Program is offered through universities across the country, in our case University of Connecticut, where students learn all aspects of gardening in an intensive one year course and then share their knowledge through volunteering. A layman gardener, as you put it, usually concentrates on what they love and are interested in while the Master Gardener course will cover many areas such as turf, trees, flowers, vegetables, insects and soil. But, there is no teacher like experience and all gardeners, master or otherwise, know those lessons are invaluable.

Q: You started volunteering at Judea Garden soon after the small community garden began in 2009. What was the mission of the garden, and what does that mission mean to you?

Judea Garden was the brilliant idea of Ann Burton and Marlene Smith of St. John’s Church in Washington. In the economic downturn of 2008, they realized that many people could no longer give monetary support to charities, but they could still help their neighbors by actually growing the food they needed. Ann and Marlene realized that this was bigger than a church project and reached out to Sarah Gager and I, and we took Judea Garden to the community. The project soon became what we thought of as a true community garden where volunteers come together and work the soil to feed their neighbors. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Q: How has the garden changed over the years? Has the mission changed?

The mission of supplying fresh produce to members of our community with limited financial resources has not changed. We distribute food mainly in Washington and New Milford but when the tomatoes, or other crops, come in in abundance, we distribute to other towns as well including Torrington, Waterbury, Danbury and others.

In Washington, the food is available in Bryan Memorial Town Hall on Mondays from 11:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October for those who need it. The Garden definitely has changed over the years. Steep Rock Association let us start Judea Garden on a field in its Macricostas Preserve. After many years of hard work, we turned a field into no-till beds where our volunteers adopt crops. We also had a plot on private land nearby where we grew squash and potatoes, but lost that when the property was sold. This year we are expanding into an adjacent field which will allow us better crop rotation, perennial crops and the ability to let areas go fallow. Coinciding with this expansion, the Washington Rotary Club, which grows winter squash in Judea Garden, has spearheaded a fund to put in drip irrigation in both gardens. Other community and religious groups, as well as individuals, have contributed to this fund. It means so much to see these groups working together to support this project.

Q: On Oct. 1 became Judea Garden’s paid manager and head gardener for Steep Rock Association. What does the switch mean for you? What does it mean for the garden?

I’m so grateful for the start St. John’s Church gave Judea Garden and the vote of confidence Steep Rock Association gave us when it voted to have Judea Garden become part of the association in 2014. Making the head gardener and manager a paid position really solidifies Steep Rock’s commitment to the project and the community. For me, it means that the garden is now truly sustainable; when I no longer run it, there is a job that can be filled to keep this great project going.

Q: The garden is largely run by volunteers and community folks: What’s next for Judea? How can Washington residents lend a hand?

We have a number of specific volunteer days each year, including spring clean-up, planting days, and weed and wine. Our fall clean up days this year will be Saturday, Oct. 22, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 23, from 1 to 4 p.m. We’ll be removing summer crops, cleaning up beds, putting away tools and getting a jump on spring.

Our volunteers are what Judea Garden is all about. We have community and religious groups, schools and individuals all working together to make a difference. There’s something special about working in the soil. While connecting with the land, you connect with yourself and make a special connection with the people working next to you. In this way, I’ve been lucky to make some wonderful friends over the past eight years.

There’s work in the garden and out. People volunteer to grow crops, start seedlings, stop by to weed or harvest, drive vegetables to food banks and help with distribution in town. I’d love to hear from anyone interested in lending a hand at denise.arturi@steeprockassoc.org.

blytton@hearstmediact.com; 203-731-3411; @bglytton