D.J. Nelson of Portland aerates his garden plot at the North Street Community Garden on Sunday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Gardeners in the Portland area opened their shutters and pulled on their work gloves Sunday, as warming weather made way for growth after one of the loneliest winters in recent memory.

At the North Street Community Garden on Munjoy Hill in Portland, D.J. Nelson prepared his beds for a mix of beets, eggplants, lettuce, tomatoes and sundry herbs. He pulled weeds from the earth and spread a mixture of coffee grounds from home and compost from a local retailer.

“It’s especially good to get out after this winter,” he said, thrusting and rotating a spiked aerator.

In the past year, gardening gained new enthusiasts around the globe as a way to get outside during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Financial Times, which cited market research indicating it was respondents’ second favorite lockdown activity – behind TV. Last spring, the U.S. Census’s trade and retail sales report indicated that garden supply sales were up 8.6 percent over the same period in spring 2019.

Jane Weinstein of Portland works in her garden plot at the community garden at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth on Sunday. Weinstein’s plot contains raspberries, lemon balm and Alliums among other things. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The gardeners who spoke to the Press Herald on Sunday are comparatively experienced. Nelson said he had tilled his plot for three years, and had grown up taking care of living, growing things.

Yet like those who jumped into gardening last year, Nelson used the hobby to get outside – and supplement his groceries. After being laid off in the spring, he came to North Street frequently, working hard for a crop that helped him get through the summer.

“I showed almost every day out here, and it showed in the yield,” he said.

Located next to the East End Community School, the community garden has a long waiting list for beds, according to Nelson. A friend of his, still waiting on the list, piggybacked on his plot on Sunday.

The school also keeps a garden next to the public complex.

Community gardens in Portland are open to residents for a $40 bed fee, or $60 for a double plot, according to the city website. Gardeners must re-up their plots yearly, and all 10 gardens currently have waiting lists.

Jane Weinstein of Portland clears out her garden plot at the community garden at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth on Sunday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nearby in Falmouth, a small group of gardeners pulled weeds and shoveled manure at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, keeping one another company in horticultural solitude.

“This lemon balm is everywhere!” Jane Weinstein called to a woman bent over another plot.

Weinstein, a Portland resident retired from teaching in Freeport, was preparing her beds for planting. The lemon balm was out of control; she planned to donate it to a plant sale.

Her gloves and jeans – and face – darkened with dirt, Weinstein wore a huge smile. A light breeze was blowing, and birds were twittering. She likes coming to the farm through the seasons, and watching the hay field change.

“This is just such a blessed place,” she said.

Last spring, community gardens wrestled with how best to handle the social distancing requirements of the pandemic. Tool sharing was a particular concern, as some gardens – including North Street – keep a common pool of tools. Some closed, but Gilsland Farm, among many others, opened with precautions.

DJ Nelson of Portland aerates his garden plot at the North Street Community Garden in Portland on Sunday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“It’s official: Gardening is necessary,” Tom Atwell, a Falmouth resident and freelance writer, wrote in April 2020. “It is considered part and parcel of agriculture, an activity both the federal and state governments deem essential in this time of mandated physical distancing.”

Community gardens are essential, too, Atwell argued: They afford “sunshine, outdoor exercise and a welcome escape from the indoor spaces we are all stuck in these days.”

Back in Falmouth, Weinstein ripped out a big root, a hollyhock that had grown to shade other plants, and planted a few delicate irises in its place.

“It’s trial and error,” she said. “That’s the only way you learn.”

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