The heavy clods of mud weighed down our shovels, and the piles of uprooted plants flattened the rubber tires on the garden carts as we hauled them through the rain-soaked field. I banged my shovel against a rock to loosen the lumpy soil, and then paused to look over the once-lush hayfield, now a hodge-podge of repositioned, end-of-season plantings, wilting from the shock of that unceremonious cart ride. What would Edith Turner say about her storied gardens now?
My guess is that she'd be pleased as can be that four of her former neighbors -- and four of their future neighbors -- had gotten together this Saturday morning to save her gardening legacy from the path of oncoming bulldozers.
Mrs. Turner died last winter, and the 7.5-acre parcel she'd farmed on the eastern edge of Burlington for decades went on the market. Her family sold the property to the Burlington Community Development Corporation -- the first step toward the construction of a 33-unit co-housing development. Projects of this sort typically raise a host of "not in my backyard" objections. The design and permitting process surrounding this one, in my back yard, has attracted a different sort of attention. Case in point: this celebratory "perennial moving party."
First proposed last summer, the co-housing project has taken several giant steps toward reality lately. The city's Design Review Board has held hearings on it, the Vermont Smart Growth Collabor-ative has endorsed it, and the co-housing developers have finalized the site's master plan. Strategizing is underway for establishing a conservation area abutting the adjacent Centennial Woods, and more than half of the housing units are under deposit.
For the impending project's neighbors -- including my husband and me -- moving Mrs. Turner's perennials on September 16 was an important symbolic step. We enjoy a strong sense of community on Bilodeau Parkway and Bilodeau Court, an enclave of single-family homes off East Avenue. In the first decades of its existence, this little cul-de-sac was known as "the fertile valley," with the resident families contributing, at a high point, more than 20 children.
As that first generation grew up and moved away and their parents died or retired to Florida, a few houses went to landlords who packed them with students. By the time my family moved here, in 1983, our 6-year-old was the youngest child in the 'hood, and only one babysitter lived within a four-block radius. "Hockey House," a University of Vermont legend, was located on our street for a couple of years, as was another "student house" known to be a popular weekend destination.
About 10 years ago, the neighborhood started changing back to what it had been. One of the student houses reverted to a family home, and then another. Now the number of single-family-home owners has reached a critical mass that is attracting even more of the same. Two families who moved away recently made a point of selling to other families. Now that's dedication to community.
Today we're up to 13 youngsters, and our community couldn't be closer. We hold a neighborhood Easter-egg hunt, and on Labor Day a potluck dinner and garage sale. Neighbors going to the store ask if you need anything. We water plants and pick up mail for each other. A lot of babysitting and sugar borrowing goes on, too.
Those of us who are now the "old-timers" in this idyllic enclave had worried about what would happen when Mrs. Turner passed away; we'd all seen oversized apartment complexes with huge parking lots shoehorned into back yards around the city. Because of the way the land along East Avenue is subdivided, the Turners' property extended from the street all the way back to the woods; the parcel buffers the entire southern border of the Bilodeau subdivision. Current zoning for this area would have allowed for a development of more than 60 units -- with twice that many cars -- to be crowded into the narrow space.
Although the land is "open," it has long been a working farm -- a rarity within the city's limits. The Turners maintained a significant market garden, and on her own throughout the '80s Edith Turner had laid out several large gardens, producing a bounty of vegetables, berries and flowers. There are apple and pear trees, too, as well as specimens that are unusual in Vermont, such as a tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) rarely seen north of Connecticut, and a few struggling American chestnuts (Castanea dentate).
From the back of my house, I had watched Mrs. Turner till and hoe and ride her mower to cut the grassy fields, clad in khakis and a pith helmet. Her perennial beds along East Avenue were a public pleasure: a time-release profusion of daffodils followed by iris and peonies, then day lilies, rose mallow and more. Down the slope away from East Avenue were gigantic mounds of rhubarb, dozens of raspberry bushes -- in a screened enclosure to discourage the birds -- and more perennials such as blue globe thistle (Echinops bannaticus), black-eyed Susan (Rudebeckia) and foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora). One of my fondest memories is of Mrs. Turner looking over the blackberry patch into my little yard and commenting, "Goes to show you can get a lot of beauty out of a small space." Oh, did I brag to the neighbors about that!
Mrs. Turner discontinued one of her larger gardens -- behind our house --in the early '90s, when she was also in her nineties. Her son took over mowing the fields. When she finally moved into a nursing home and the house was rented, sumac saplings began appearing in the fields, the blackberries went rampant, and her gardens became tangled with fast-spreading purple asters and wiry weeds.
The sale of the land could well have meant the end to Mrs. Turner's efforts, but at all the meetings between the Bilodeau neighbors and Burlington CoHousing, our memories of her, and the beauty of the land she worked so hard to steward, have set the tone. The fact that the CoHousing people have felt their own connection to this land has helped build our good working relationship. Their site plan for the 7.5-acre parcel calls for the project's entire footprint -- buildings, paths and parking -- to cover less than 1 acre.
A rain-collection system from the roofs will store water for substantial vegetable and flower gardens. The buildings will also allow for the eventual installation of "green roofs," which will provide more planting space atop the housing units. The co-housers want to create a community much like the one we are lucky to have here already.
And so last Saturday, in the spirit of Mrs. Turner, the Bilodeau Parkway and Burlington CoHousing neighbors-to-be got together to move her perennials from the areas slated for construction to the eastern end of the property, where gardens will bloom once again. Her barn will be moved down there, too, and the garden named in honor of the Turner family. As part of the project deal, abutting neighbors, including my husband and me, will buy extensions of our back yards into the former Turner fields. In exchange, we promise to never develop on them. Except, of course, to cultivate vegetables, berries and flowers.