The Yale shuttle will take you most of the way to Edgerton Park; a few blocks ramble through a leafy, affluent neighborhood will take you the rest. The entrance on Cliff Street opens almost directly onto the greenhouses and garden where members of the community chat as they harvest their tomatoes, flowers spilling onto packed dirt paths.
A walk around Edgerton Park, probably one of the most unknown places accessible from campus, is a welcome exchange for the usual walk around the manicured courtyards of Yale. The site of one of the oldest community greenhouse programs in the country, Edgerton gives green-thumbs gardening plots for modest fees and provides the community with a haven of greenery, community and kindly eccentricity.
Greenhouse manager Olaf Zeidenbergs’ assessment of the value of the Edgerton greenhouse program is simple: “To take care of plants.” Zeidenbergs plays opera as he works among planters of orchids, tropicals, exotics and plants he calls “unknowns.” He focuses on orchids — from the commonplace to the rare — and papyrus, which needs special attention and plentiful water.
One tenant, who Zeidenbergs identified as a Yale medical student, focuses exclusively on carnivorous plants. His corner of the greenhouse is home to pitcher plants — graceful, horn-shaped structures tinged in red whose interior liquid kills and digests any bugs who venture inside; tiny, active Venus fly traps and bright green blade-like plants covered in insect-catching spines.
While not exactly neat, the greenhouses and gardens are beautifully in use. Edgerton gardeners grow tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, beans, cucumbers and flowers in overflowing, free-form beds. Pesticides and herbicides are discouraged by the garden committee, and the garden is certainly a picture of natural growing done for purely recreational purposes.
The park, located at 75 Cliff Street near the base of East Rock, is bordered by a high stone wall, one of many remnants of the Edgerton’s days as the private estate of first Eli Whitney and later Frederick Brewster, who donated his property to the city of New Haven in 1965. Zeidenbergs said the community garden and greenhouse programs started in the early eighties, and have since become highly-sought communities for the people of greater New Haven.
So many people are choosing to keep or expand their units in the greenhouse this year that only three new tenants were able to get space. The two greenhouses are divided into two hundred units of nine square feet each, which can be rented at $80 for the first space and $70 for each additional space. Since tenants can rent from one to 10 spaces and can keep their units from year to year, it usually takes at least a year’s wait to get a place.
Beyond the greenhouses is the entrance to the community garden. Seventy six plots of about eight by 10 feet surround a circular hedge that has been in place since the estate was turned into a park, said Lee Heston, chair of the Community Garden Committee. Like in the greenhouses, plots in the community garden are usually obtained only after a period on a waiting list, which currently contains twenty-five people. Unlike in the greenhouse, the garden limits members to one $35 plot.
Once obtained, each plot has a distinct personality, Heston said.
“Everybody has their own style. Some people have these raised beds; some people have just open space,” Heston said. “You pretty much do what you want.”
Along with the community garden and greenhouses, Edgerton Park has many other places and programs to be explored. Benches and paths dot the landscaped part of the park. The New Haven Police house and graze their horses in the estate stables. On Sundays, the carriage house is home to a horticultural library, and in the summers, plays by Shakespeare are performed in the park’s natural amphitheater.
Both Heston and Zeidenbergs encouraged Yalies to attend the park’s “Sunday in the Park” on Sept. 18. A major fund-raiser for the park, the event includes attractions for children such as pony rides and games, along with a sheep-herding demo, a dance band and a silent auction.
But for Heston, the garden is still the biggest draw, a place where a visitor could find people eagerly growing everything imaginable — from venus flytraps to rare orchids to broccoli for dinner. And maybe peace of mind, as well.
“I think gardening, for me, is therapeutic,” Heston said.