“You know what they say about people who you see buying zucchini in the grocery store during the summertime?” asked Dorothy Shergalis, as she harvested her own from her plants.

“They say they must have no friends,” Shergalis said, laughing as she emerged with her bounty, referring to the abundance of zucchini for home gardeners this time of year. Shergalis should know. As president of Darien’s Cherry Lawn Gardeners, she has plenty of both zucchini — and gardening friends.

The approximately 60 plots at Cherry Lawn Community Gardens are celebrating 45 years this year, and a recent visit showed the gardens thriving.

Shergalis knows every vegetable, flower and gardener there. Darien Nature Center, which shares the same property, gives its summer camp attendees a chance to visit the gardens. The young campers told The Darien Times visiting the gardens was fun because they learned about bees (Shergalis keeps a hive there), other bugs, pollination and they do scavenger hunts.

The gardeners

Shergalis pointed out that out of the 60 or so gardeners, 20 of them are men, and at least four were present and working on their gardens during the visit. One of them was Eric Joosten, who currently serves as the chairman of Darien’s Environmental Protection Commission.

Joosten not only maintains a plot at Cherry Lawn, he also maintains an “urban garden” annually with Wayne Riedel on Old Kings Highway, near Corbin Drive. At that garden, the two sell honey, cut flowers, and other vegetables and herbs.

Joosten said he’s had an active garden at Cherry Lawn on and off nearly since its inception in 1975.

“I helped my mother start hers in 1976. At that time, she was the brains, and I was the brawn,” Joosten said. His mother designed the garden, and he turned the soil and did the heavy lifting. He took a break for a while but since has come back. He grows tomatoes, basil, and something a little more unusual — castor oil plants.

He talked about the joys and challenges of being a home gardener — one of the challenges being keeping squirrels and other rodents from eating the bounty. Joosten pointed out that often during the heat of the summer, a bit of a juicy tomato for a chipmunk or squirrel is less about food and more about hydration.

Besides the community aspect of the gardens, another aspect he enjoys is walking around the gardens. It gives him new ideas all the time.

“Each plot shows the difference in people’s personalities,” he said. Joosten directed The Darien Times to one garden planted in raised beds that was very organized. Others are more meadow like and natural in their plantings.

Darien resident Wyn Lydecker has been maintaining a community garden for 20 years. She plants volunteer poppies that peak in the spring, as cilantro/coriander and other vegetables. She lets her garden repopulate.

Lydecker said one of the things she loves about the community gardens is it is truly the meaning of “We’re all in this together.”

“We have to cooperate and share resources with one another,” she said.

Like Joosten, she says it is interesting to see how highly individualized each plot is that shows the personality of the gardener.

Given the current climate in the world, Lydecker also said that gardening is very peaceful.

“When you’re pulling weeds, everything goes away. When you leave, you bring a bit of that peace back out into the world with you,” she said.

She also said that as a result of her bringing her children to the gardens when they were young, they now have their own home gardens.

“You never know what seeds you are going to plant,” Lydecker said.

Another gardener was busy carrying plants to a somewhat empty plot compared to others.

“It is my first day, so I don’t have much to reflect on,” Tim Joyce said. He said he’s hoping to grow tomatoes, and got a plot with some friends upon retiring.

Tom Heckle told The Darien Times he gets the “annual award” for fewest weeds.

“It’s a paper plate with a picture of a weed with a line through it,” he joked.

Heckle’s impeccably maintained garden showed an abundance of the famed summer zucchini, and said he’s also grown beans and tomatoes, as well as cucumbers, eggplant and carrots.

He also has planted watermelon and pumpkins, but “I might be a little late on those.”

“It’s been a blessing for us to have these gardens,” he said.

Gary and Linda Wetterauw had an interesting looking plant in the center of their garden, which turned out to be asparagus. The couple has been gardening for 14 years. It takes several years for the asparagus to mature for planting. In addition to tomatoes and zucchini, Gary is also growing garlic, and dug one out for us during the visit.

Gary said he never looks at gardening as a chore.

“It’s a hobby,” he said.

Reflecting on the history

Shergalis said there was a time that the community considered moving the gardens to another location in the park to make way for a lacrosse field. She said it wouldn’t have been a good option as the other area was shady, so the gardeners were glad the gardens stayed put.

She also gave The Darien Times the plot names of the very first version of the community gardens of residents that began it.

Shergalis also keeps a honey bee hive in the gardens, which act in perfect concert with the area. There’s currently a waiting list about 10 gardeners long for the plots.

The gardeners who use it have been those without space or sun to grow at home successfully.

Dealing with the pandemic

The rules for Cherry Lawn Community Gardens already say the property is for gardeners only and there’s a gate that keeps non-gardeners out. Shergalis knows the gardens so well that when a woman with young children wandered in, she immediately said, “That’s not one of our gardeners.”

She greeted the woman from afar.

“Oh, we just wanted to look at your beautiful gardens,” the woman said.

“That’s OK, just make sure to keep a safe distance,” Shergalis said.

Social distancing signs are in effect at the gardens as well.

When the town first shut down in March, the gardeners weren’t sure what the future of this year’s gardens would be, as spring was just around the corner. Shergalis sent out an email to the community asking them “What kind of seeds are you planting?”

Shergalis said, “I'm planting seeds of well-being and safety.”

Another gardener said, "We are planting seeds of faith and hope. Looking forward to sunny days."

For more information on the Cherry Lawn Community Gardens, visit darienct.gov.