Growing Wiser: Improving NH Communities With Sustainability, Organic Farming and More

In the spring it’s only natural to want to embrace nature, but wisdom comes from exploring it all year long. Meet Granite Staters who improve their communities with ideas for sustainability, organic farming and more.



Jill Nooney and her husband Bob Munger have turned their abandoned 30-acre dairy farm in Lee into a garden showcase for sculpture and a gathering spot for artists and nature lovers.

Matthew Lomano

In every community there are a few citizens who, with vision, commitment and energy, make positive changes in society and help others to see that such change is possible. Here are just a few such people working in five different towns in New Hampshire. All are, in some way, involved with growing things, treading softly on the Earth, and sharing ideas. The new word for what they have in common is the practice of “sustainability.” An older word for that same practice still applies just fine. It’s “wisdom.”

In every community there are a few citizens who, with vision, commitment and energy, make positive changes in society and help others to see that such change is possible. Here are just a few such people working in five different towns in New Hampshire. All are, in some way, involved with growing things, treading softly on the Earth, and sharing ideas. The new word for what they have in common is the practice of “sustainability.” An older word for that same practice still applies just fine. It’s “wisdom.”  

Jill Nooney and her husband, Bob Munger, live on Bedrock Farm — 30 acres of what was an abandoned dairy farm in Lee. They bought it in 1980 and have been working on it since 1985. They grow every kind of tree, shrub and flower one could imagine, letting each strut its stuff in an environment that brings out its best. They open their gardens (bedrockgardens.com ) to the public on the third Saturday of the month from May to September. At an open garden day last summer, 600 people came to visit their amazing garden, one of the best in the state.

Jill, now in her 60s, is a therapist by trade but only spends three days a week seeing clients. Bob is fully retired. Jill is also a sculptor, a cello player and a landscape designer. She regularly competes in the Boston Flower Show with her original offerings. She displays and sells garden art that she makes with found objects (finegarden.com), including old farm machinery.

We must cultivate our own garden. When man was put in the garden of Eden he was put there so that he should work, which proves that man was not born to rest. — Voltaire

Says Jill, “What’s unique about this property is that it combines horticulture, landscape design, sculpture, and is a hub for cultural events.” Each summer there are sculpture and writing classes, photography classes and art camp visits. Then there are the summer concerts; so far there have been bluegrass, jazz, oboe, marching band and classical guitar concerts. “People float out of this place. They bring their lunches, their 80-year-old grandmothers,” Jill says.

Jill and Bob do not believe in using chemicals to get results. They mulch with aged manure, which also enriches the soil. The property is full of places to rest in the shade and to contemplate life.

The gardens have few weeds because Jill loves to weed and rarely lets weeds go to seed. But the couple knows that they will not be able to maintain these gardens forever. They are ready to donate the land and the house to a non-profit that would be willing to make it a public garden and continue their work.

Gail Prince takes a break.
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

Gail Prince is a retired Air Force colonel living on Common Earth Farms in Bedford. After retiring, she was living in Washington while taking a class in social justice and working with immigrants. One, she noticed, only ate food pantry food — from cans. She asked him one day, “What do you do for fresh fruit?” His answer changed her life — and those of many others. “I beg for it,” he said.

Originally from Manchester, Gail sold her house in Washington and bought a run-down nursery and greenhouse in Bedford. Her goal was simple: to provide fresh produce for marginalized people. The problem? She didn’t know how to do so.

Gail consulted with the UNH Cooperative Extension and others to see how to proceed. Margaret Hagen and Gail McWilliam Jellie suggested that she team up with a non-profit so she connected with the International Institute of New Hampshire, a group that helps refugees to have better lives.

The joint program began in 2009 but Gail was called back to serve a year in Afghanistan, so it wasn't until 2011 before things got off the ground. Jeremiah Vernon, an agriculture specialist and “people person” from the International Institute, was hired to run the farm — all one and a half acres of it. Neighbors, the Arel family, offered their two and a half acres. The state donated an electric fence to keep out the deer.

The program is an unqualified success. The greenhouses last year produced 70,000 seedlings — for use on the farm and to sell by the roadside. Fresh produce was sold at the farmstand, sometimes causing traffic jams, and at farmers markets. The greater Bedford community has embraced the project. Local schools, churches and individuals have helped out. A local contractor, Tom Ireland, of Turning Point Development, has donated labor and materials for fixing up the buildings and greenhouses.

Common Earth Farms works with new Americans to supplement their farming backgrounds, teaching them the agricultural, linguistic and business skills needed to become successful farmers and entrepreneurs.
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

The farmers are from Africa and Bhutan. In addition to those who do production farming, many get their own plots in exchange for help with the seedling production. A 15-passenger van transports participants to the farm from Manchester to grow the foods they love: tomatoes, okra, hot peppers, bitter melon and more. On weekends whole families come out — parents, children and grandparents — just as they might have worked together in their native lands. And as Gail says, “They laugh out here. They feel a sense of spirit. Muslim? Hindu? It doesn’t matter.” They are farming and feeding their families.

Gail loves this new adventure. What’s her role? “I facilitate success. I’m there for the farmers, helping them, coaching them.” She spends her free time serving as a liaison with the greater community, letting people know what they can do to help.

Scott Stokoe manages Dartmouth College’s Organic Farm, outside Hanover. In 2007 the farm was given a sturdy 1,200-square-foot, double-layer rigid acrylic greenhouse by the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover. Scott has been using the greenhouse to develop a model of sustainable food and energy production that will help Dartmouth students — and the greater community — understand and appreciate what true sustainability is.

Scott is particularly interested in extending the local growing season without using any oil-based inputs (electricity, oil or fertilizer). The goal is to use sun as the only input, to use “passive solar” in a climate that is not generally seen as suitable for such. To this end, the greenhouse has twelve 750-gallon tanks with translucent sides that absorb heat from the sun.

Fish are grown in those big tanks for human consumption, and algae and water fleas are grown to feed the fish. Basil and lettuce grow in quasi-terrestrial floating beds on the water surface. The greenhouse also grows traditional vegetables in the soil during the spring, summer and fall, and earthworms to feed fish and improve the soil. The fish also produce nitrogen waste that is processed by bacteria and used to fertilize the garden crops.

Scott likes to explain that the greenhouse is not about teaching students how to be fish farmers or gardeners. His goal is to get them to understand that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is not easy. “There is no free lunch,” says Scott. But passive solar systems can work, even in New Hampshire. 

In addition to Dartmouth undergraduates and engineering students, Scott opens the greenhouse to school groups and other colleges. He strives to get people thinking about how we produce food in America and how we use energy. Traditional agriculture is very energy-intensive, so he continues to challenge students to figure out better ways to grow food.

Thirteen years ago Wendy and Bill Booth of Nottingham got their first beehive as something fun they could do together with insects. Wendy had been obsessed with “bugs” since she was a kid, so raising bees seemed logical. She says that Scott was afraid of bees at first, “but when he saw the sweet rewards of the honey harvest, he went along for the ride.”

Now they have up to a dozen hives and produce from 300 to 500 pounds of honey each year. Wendy has also become active in educating the public about bees, helping new beekeepers work through challenges, and is the person people call when a swarm of bees arrives unexpectedly, as has happened at Marshall’s Mall and Dover House of Pizza.

In Nottingham, the Booths are “famous” because they have a hive of bees in their bedroom. That’s right — a hive that fits into a window and has glass sides so that they can see their bees. And this hive can be closed off so that it can be removed and taken to schools or garden clubs when Wendy does presentations. She is a perfect lobbyist for beekeeping because she so clearly loves her bees, or as calls them, her “girls.”

It’s important to Wendy that people raise bees, but only if they get into it for the right reasons. “People who think they are going to make a lot of money get out in three to four years,” she says. “It’s an expensive hobby — like having a boat.” But we need bees to pollinate our fruit trees and vegetables so she encourages interested people to give it a try. Each year she talks to about 20 schools, half a dozen garden clubs and other groups.

Wendy explains to groups that bees have a hard time in New Hampshire. There are mites that plague them, cold winters that kill them and changing climatic conditions make it to hard provide adequate nectar. “You have to love your bees, ’cause it’s a lotta work.”

Wendy and Bill Booth are suitably attired to rob some beehives.
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

But the benefits are significant. There is the honey and some wax, of course. Most of all, for Wendy, is the thrill of putting on a bee suit and opening up a hive. “It’s like bungee jumping with your feet on the ground. I get an adrenalin rush. I feel calm, but it’s very exciting — the sound, the smell.” And on a daily basis she gets to see the bees that share her house.              

Another friend of critters is Joan O’Connor, who is widely known as “the worm lady” because red wiggler composting worms are her friends — and a portion of her livelihood. She is spokesperson for composting worms and raises tens of thousands of them each year. She sells them at a farmers market, Bona Fide Green Goods in Concord, and even out of the back of her car.

Joan believes in the inherent goodness of worms. They are taking a waste product — vegetable matter — and turning it into something useful: compost. Not only that, they are reducing the amount of matter being sent to the landfill, 20 to 30 percent of which is compostable.

Home for Joan and her thousands of worms is a 640-square-foot, one-room schoolhouse in Henniker. She has lots of interests besides worms, of course, and is a fervent supporter of farmers markets: “Markets get money directly to farmers. And consumers get to connect with their favorite farmers.” She has been selling worms at the Concord market for six years, and organized and runs a winter market in Tilton. She is also the site manager for Local Harvest CSA in Concord.

Joan O'Connor, AKA The Worm Lady
Photo by Matthew Lomanno

Joan speaks regularly to garden clubs, encouraging members to start raising worms. She explains that you need a plastic recycling bin with two one-inch holes drilled in the bottom for drainage and a warm place to keep it — the basement, a closet, even in a rolling sweater bin under the bed. Odors? Not a problem, she says — if you do it right.

Here’s what Joan recommends: Shred some newspaper and place it in the bottom of the bin. Add a layer of damp peat moss and then the worms. A thousand worms — a pound — is a good number to start with. Cover the worms with another layer of peat moss and newspapers and they will be happy. Bury some vegetable matter in the bin and you’re good to go. Joan does warn that worms tend to be escape artists, especially at first, so you will need to keep the bin covered with a piece of screen or cloth.

After that? “Keep them happy, they’ll have sex, increase their numbers and eat more garbage. It takes about three months to get settled in. Then new worms show up.” Joan keeps her bin outside in a shady spot all summer, and then brings them back indoors in the fall.

Joan likes that “anybody can raise worms — from seniors to school kids. Anybody. It’s natural, organic, and doesn’t use any chemicals.” So if you meet Joan, you just might get the bug — or rather, the worm. 

So if you’re interested in sustainability, try to meet up with one or more of these community educators and advocates. Or find one in your own community — or become one yourself. After all, you are never too old or too young to grow wiser.


Henry Homeyer in the garden with his grandchildren Henry and Casey
photo by cindy heath

Wise Guy

Master organic gardener Henry Homeyer (gardening-guy.com) has lived in Cornish Flat since 1970. His gardening column appears in 12 newspapers around New England and he’s a regular voice on Vermont Public Radio. His book “Organic Gardening (Not Just) in the Northeast: A Hands-On, Month by Month Guide” is an essential guide to sustainable gardening.

Homeyer’s latest book, “Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet” [Bunker Hill Publishing, 2012] is for kids: a fantasy-adventure about a boy born with a mustache and the ability to communicate with animals including his best friend, a cougar.

It’s a gripping tale that keeps youngsters turning pages — even those who usually don’t like to read. (Learn more at henryhomeyer.com.) The book is charmingly illustrated by Lebanon’s AVA Gallery faculty member Joshua Yunger.
 

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