Gardening club has been working to beautify Winooski for decades
On an early morning this past July, Sue O’Brien is setting up traffic cones around a flower bed at the top of the Winooski Circle. In a few minutes, she’ll plunge her hands into the dirt and begin clearing away weeds and roadside debris.
O’Brien's been doing some version of this since 1997, when she had an idea to plant flowers in a green space coming off I-89. It wasn’t a typical spot to garden and posed its challenges, but soon drivers entering Winooski were welcomed by a wave of cheery marigolds.
In the past 26 years, the reach of the gardening group has grown. The volunteer organization now manages 18 flower beds across Winooski. Most spots tend to involve navigating traffic as much as weeding — an element consistent with the founding project by the interstate.
Each year through the early fall, a team of two to seven members meets weekly to weed, pick up trash, and trim away excess blossoms to make room for new growth, a process called "dead-heading." Recent member Frankie Nanni dead-heads zinnias in a bed at the top of the roundabout. She found the group shortly after moving to Winooski.
“You know, when you drive by or you walk by, you see your work, you’re like 'Yep, I helped,'" Nanni said.
She said she’s found real community in the group, beyond the social nature of gardening sessions, and beautifying the roadsides has helped her gain a sense of place in a new city.
“Because everybody’s a part of it, you know," she said. "The city’s helping us, so that means everybody is contributing, whether they know it or not."
The group is funded by local donations, which enables them to purchase flowers and supplies. The city of Winooski provides watering support. Some local businesses now fully maintain certain gardens the group founded.
For O’Brien, the group’s founder, planting is a hereditary skill. She’s even named after a flower — black-eyed Susans. She says her grandmother, who lived just over the bridge in Burlington, taught her how to garden. She had a technique of drawing a little moat around each seedling to collect the water.
“And so when I’m planting, I always have that formula," O’Brien said. "I tell people I have a very strong connection to the downtown, 'cause literally I look over and I’m looking in her neighborhood.”
Longtime gardening group member Judy Lance says O’Brien has been the motor and the heart of the group.
“She walks the walk, " Lance said. "Because she’s out there doing things a lot more than most of the rest of us are. So she’s an inspiration and an incentive.”
Lance tends to a different flower bed, up by Landry Park. She said it's a nice little garden seen by so many people. Even on this drizzly day, many residents have opted to be outside.
“Numerous people in the group work together, which is great because we can kibitz about this and that and the other thing, and how to take care of this, or should I divide this now?” Lance said.
She says the group is always thinking about the pollinators and birds. Increasingly over the years, they’ve planted with an awareness to what they’ll leave behind, what will wither in autumn and what will stay in winter.
“Well, of course, coneflowers — the bees love them and the butterflies love them, and if you leave them standing, afterward the birds like the seeds and the seed heads, and they’re kind of interesting all winter," she said. "And these sedum, these 'Autumn Joy' sedum in each corner — those get those clusters of mauvey-color blossoms that turn darker as the season goes on. And those will be coming soon, and monarch butterflies love them, as well as lots of bees.”
Judy calls the gardens “opportunity spots,” places flowers can grow that are lying dormant, like the beds along the traffic circle or in a spare patch of grass behind the senior center.
At an “opportunity spot" on the other side of town, we run into Sue O'Brien, who’s dropped by to weed a garden across the street. The two kibitz about bindweed and verbenas from opposite sides of the street before turning back to their work.
There’s an image surrounding gardening that is rooted in the peace of the natural world. The word “flower bed” conjures images of straw hats and serene birdsong. Though it may not look like it, that’s exactly what the group is involved with, amid downtown traffic and busy playgrounds. Just, the other way around.
As O'Brien will tell you, the point is to bring the peace into these spaces, through the blooming flowers themselves, as well as the community the act of tending crates. Because it’s easy to talk, easy to laugh, with your hands in a garden — wherever that garden may be.
This story was produced in collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.
Samantha Watson is an editor at The Winooski News.