January 23, 2022

Room To Grow

Bringing in the harvest

Photos provided by Charlean Harris

Reilynn Harris starts exercising her green thumb at a Room to Grow! Cortland raised bed in Solon.

Anyone can grow a garden.

Vicky Mundy learned that after she obtained a raised bed garden box through the Room to Grow! Cortland program.

“This is my first garden, so this is really cool,” she said as she picked yellow beans from her 2- by 4-foot raised bed. “It’s so much fun!”

Her garden box is elevated, so she can reach it without squatting down. It was packed with tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, lettuce and basil in early August. “I have not seen any cucumbers come up. I did have peas. They are past season.”

The Cortland area woman, mother of Riley, a pre-teen, and a childcare specialist at the Child Development Council, is a steward for a bed at her apartment, part of a requirement for Room to Grow! Cortland, organized by gardening enthusiasts.

The program aims to reach people who have disadvantages to gardening access, not those who can get out to a community garden across town.

“The first week, you plant a couple of things,” Mundy said. “And the next week, you plant a couple more things. The third week, another thing. From there you water a couple times a day. And prune back where you need to.”

“Anybody can do a garden. I never did a garden. I didn’t think it would grow anything,” Mundy said, next to her box teeming with lush plants.’

How it started

“I’m very excited about the program,” said Bryn Carr of Homer, a vegetable farmer and organizer of Room to Grow! Cortland.

“It’s another project that grew up naturally. Someone posted online: Someone in California was doing a garden, a fruit forest, and people could walk through it and eat what they wanted,” she said. “It’s something I always wanted to do.”

She and others set up a Zoom talk during the winter and came up with the idea of a community garden. But a community garden has a lot of blocks for some to access fresh food, she said.

She knew some people who could not drive to a community garden. And that some would not know how to grow their own food. Some can’t reach the ground.

“Time is an issue. You are a single parent and have three jobs. There’s no time to do this,” Carr said.

But what if organizers could bring a garden to the people, rather than them go to a plot out in the country? And what if the gardeners got support on Facebook, to help them share recipes and expertise? And what if each garden bed had a caretaker to oversee it, because landlords had objected because previous efforts had been abandoned. And what if the caretaker for the beds could take responsibility for the box and share the food in the neighborhood?

That’s Room to Grow! Cortland. It now has 29 beds in Groton, Marathon, McGraw, Cortland, Cortlandville and Homer.

“It’s going good,” Carr said. “Really well. Some people are struggling with plants. Some have done well. This is the year to learn. You are a mentor for next year — we want to add 25 beds next year.”

Laying the framework

Carr and other volunteers got busy last winter. She found a Syracuse woman who would build cedar raised beds at cost.

“Vickie Mundy has connections,” Carr said. “And found people who could use them.”

The group raised money, $1 and $5 at a time, to pay for the project, bringing in $3,000 to pay for beds, shovels, gloves, seeds and even hats.

A soil company in Cortland donated the dirt. Other businesses chipped in. Carr and crew recruited honor society students and Boy Scouts to deliver beds, plants and soil.

“It was good to connect those two elements. They were getting to know people that wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Carr said.

A Riverside Plaza apartment dweller on the third floor saw a box carried through stairwells to the balcony there, Carr said. There’s one in the former Penguin Trailer Park on Route 13 and several in McGraw and Marathon.

“We tried to spread them out as equitably as possible,” Carr said. The program was mentioned on the Room to Grow Cortland and Cortland Solidarity Gardening Facebook pages. Participants get a challenge each week with the option to post photos and share their ideas.

Room to Grow! Cortland
Find out about it at:

  • Room to Grow Cortland on Facebook
  • Cortland Solidarity Gardeners on Facebook

“This is not just us giving you a free garden. That doesn’t work,” Carr said. “We had to have specific people in each building sign on to be a steward of the garden.”

Mundy is such a person.

“I love the raised bed,” Mundy said. “It allows me to be able to do it. It’s hard to get down to the ground. I have had fibromyalgia since I was 12. It affects my ability to get down and get back up.”
The 2-by-4 space allows enough to share. Plants are snug and the gardeners learn to turn back leaves to allow all the species to grow.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Vickie Mundy, a Cortland area woman, helped organize the Room to Grow! Cortland program with others, getting people set up with raised beds and asking for donations.

Signing on

Charlean Harris of Solon heard about the program and signed on.

“I can’t get around well. I thought this would help, being involved with my family and granddaughter,” she said.

Her box is on her deck and with a case of diabetes and arthritis in her knee, she can sit next to it and tend to it. She too, is a steward over the box and has shared cucumbers, lettuce and beans. She’s getting basil. Tomatoes are on the way. More cukes are coming.

Her son and granddaughter helped with the project and her husband set it up and filled it with soil, said Harris. She is having all sorts of fun, posting photos of her progress on Facebook.

“I’m trying to get the grandchild to learn about gardening to eat vegetables,” she said.

“Every week gardeners get a new challenge: how to prune zucchini, for instance,” Carr said.

Harris rattled off a list of topics she’s learned: temperatures, watering, pruning and sun and shade for what. She even knows the difference between the male and female flowers on a squash.

Mundy showed off a typical challenge on Facebook – with extensive directions on turning back leaves and encouraging air flow and ways to cross pollinate. She didn’t dare capsulize it.

Mundy said the garden has been therapeutic.

“I have had success with zucchini,” she said. “Cukes are not doing too good. Will try again next year.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Garden beginnings

“I grew up in a gardening family,” Carr said. “My mom has an incredible garden. We troubleshoot gardening issues.”

Carr went to college in a city and missed being able to garden.

“I moved back here eight or nine years ago. I immediately wanted to get back into gardening. Four years ago we moved to Homer and started doing a farm stand, the farmers market and a CSA,” Carr said. “We have enjoyed it.”

Though she did admit: “My garden is more neglected this year.”

Advice From A Gardener

When planning a garden, Bryn Carr of Homer says: “Don’t give up.”

“It’s going to be frustrating. Things will die, I guarantee it,” said the vegetable farmer, leader of garden mentor program Room to Grow! Cortland, a county wide program started by passionate gardeners.

Other advice:

  • “Don’t go too big. Start small. You will get more than enough tomatoes from one plant.”
  • “Plant what you like to eat. Don’t plant zucchini unless you like zucchini.”
  • “Don’t plant too soon. That is my biggest pet peeve. We, as a community-supported agriculture, don’t put plants in till mid-June or the end of June. We start plants in pots beforehand. You get frost at the end of May and into June. And tons of rain. Weeds will grow. At the end of June, things slow down.”