The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 16, 2002


It's harvest time down at the garden plots on Foss Farm

Harvest season is coming to Foss Farm. We are talking about garden plots on approximately two acres of the 57-acre conservation land located off Bedford Road, near the Concord River. Over a hundred separate plots have been basking in the warmth of the summer sun, surviving heat waves and pounding rains, growing into thick jungles of six-foot sunflowers, wandering pumpkins, climbing beans, and a variety of eggplants that shine purple and fat under their lavender flowers. Sharing the gardens, the gardeners also share the successes and failures, pests, and problems. What is growing well this year? What is the pest of this season? Ed Humm, a daily visitor to his plot, has been very pleased with his peppers and lettuce. He buys his plants when they are small, and nurses them at home until it is safe to plant them, avoiding the stressed look that nursery plants can have by the end of May. His plot is neat and no weed dares show its face. Ed is not the first gardener to use the Foss land. This silty river soil has a long history of agriculture.

The roots of the land

Ed Humm, a daily visitor to his garden plot, is proud of his peppers and lettuce this year. (photo by Cynthia Sorn)

Farming in New England and at Foss Farm is more than a three-hundred year-old tradition. Before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, the land in New England had been cleared and farmed by American Indians. According to Howard S. Russell in A Long, Deep Furrow — Three Centuries of Farming in New England, when the Pilgrims set anchor in 1620 at Plymouth Harbor, they found "...a tract of tree-cleared hillside, long farmed, but whose numerous former cultivators had been completely swept away by a recent pestilence." Though it was awful that the Indians got smallpox and other illnesses brought to the "new" world, the white settlers benefited since they had no large farm tools, no plow animals and no knowledge of the local farming environment. Later, farming was such a common institution in New England that when various histories of Carlisle were written, very little was mentioned of the type of farming that took place here. In his book, Russell lists fruit, cattle, corn, dairy, hops, vegetables, and lumber as the principal commercial crops in the Middlesex county area between 1800 and 1860. But what was the small farmer raising for his own family? The small family farm might have chickens, turkeys, geese, pigs, cows, plow horses, and sheep. Farmers would combine their herds of cows or sheep with other herds in Carlisle and a herder, paid for by the town, would tend the flocks. The small farm could have fruit trees, a vegetable patch, nut trees such as beechnuts, bee hives, sugar maple trees, and an herb garden for medicinal uses.

Ownership of the Foss land

Carlisle resident Bill Hamilton and his friend Keith from Winchester are first-time gardeners at Foss Farm. Hamilton, after being on the waiting list for several years "finally made it." Keith's children made the sign. (photo by Cynthia Sorn)

According to Carlisle: Composite Community by Donald A. Lapham, Robert and John Blood built a house in Carlisle around 1653, having bought an extensive amount of land in what are now Carlisle, Chelmsford, and Billerica. Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins notes in her Carlisle Its History and Heritage, "Phinehas Blood, great-grandson of the original Robert, and son of Simon and Abigail (Flint) Blood, was born in 1750, probably in what is known as the William Foss, Jr. house, 981 Bedford Road, which had been built by his father in 1739." According to Old Houses and Families of Carlisle, Mass., Volume 7-12, by Martha Wilkins, after Phinehas Blood and his family lived in the house and farmed the land, now known as Foss Farm, it was sold to the Hutchinson family. Three more families owned the house and land before the Fosses bought it: the Fletchers, the Hills, and then the Hansons, who bought it in 1889. Frank Foss moved his family to the land in 1904. Wilkins notes that Mr. Foss turned several acres between the house and the river into an asparagus farm, an industry that was commercially successful in this area. Wild asparagus ferns can still be found scattered around the field. In 1910 the state of Bedford Road was so poor that Dr. Towle of Carlisle arranged to have Foss tow his car whenever it became stuck in the mud as he traveled to and from Bedford over the Concord River bridge.

Foss Farm today
These eggs were laid by a killdeer in the gardens earlier in the season. (photo by Cynthia Sorn)

The town of Carlisle bought 57 acres, abutting the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge to the east, from William Foss, Jr. in 1971. In 1981 there were 72 gardeners using the garden plots at Foss Farm, but in 1984 there were only 34. After improvements in 1985 the number of gardeners has increased steadily over the years. This year Bob Dennison, who has been appointed by the conservation commision to coordinate all activities at the gardens (plowing and assigning plots), had to turn people away. Dennison has been in charge for the past 14 years. (In 1985 the plots cost $5 each and the price has not changed since then). Other parts of the Foss Farm conservation land have been used for horseback riding, dog shows, walking, fairs, dog-sledding, nature study, and picnicking.

How does your garden grow?

Foss Farm is open for use by nonresidents, a fact that pleases Kim Siebert of Bedford. "My cucumbers are maxing out all over the place," she said, pointing to an extensive web of vines covering her plot. As we talked on a hot Sunday morning during the August heat wave, she said she's had no problems with bean beetles and wondered if the marigolds she planted nearby kept the pests away. She is finding tomato hornworms a big annoyance, though she knows that once they turn into moths they will be beautiful. Ann Ketchen of Carlisle agreed the beans are doing well this year, but isn't having Kim's luck with the cucumbers. She tiptoed into her friend Jennifer's plot to show me the killdeer (a small plover) eggs nestled in the
Jennifer Bush appreciates the peace and quiet of the land. At her home in the center of town, she gets a lot of traffic noise. (photo by Cynthia Sorn)
tomato patch, while her husband Richard set up a tent to create shade for reading. "Stuff I don't like is doing great," declared Charlene Hinton, staring at her large heads of cabbage. Her husband Steve was weeding their diagonally planted plot while discussing their daughter's heading off to college. Gardeners at Foss Farm share everything: family stories, watering cans, and tips about plants, as they toil. Sarah Dorer of Bedford noted her tomatoes were large but still green, and explained the need for warmer nights to bring on some color. Amanda Hickman was manning the pump with her son Lucas, five, while husband Walter and son Wyatt, three, tended the hose in their plot. "When are the kids old enough to want to help?" she wondered as she tried to keep Lucas interested in pushing the pump arm up and down. This has not been an easy year to garden, according to Dennison. With such a dry winter season and an exceptionally dry, hot summer, it has not been easy to hand pump the water that the gardens depend on.

While her parents finished weeding the shallots, Harriet Ketchen, seven, had brought a book to read under the sunflowers. Some farmers come to sit and relax in the peace and quiet of the land. "This is like coming out to the country for me," said Jennifer Bush, noting that her home in the center of Carlisle gets a lot of commuter noise.

With its long history as a productive farming environment, Foss Farm is a special place for Carlisle residents and all who use it.
Kim Siebert and other gardeners have found tomato hornworms a big annoyance. At 800x600 screen res, the photo above is approx life size. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Historical Note: Farmers start digging at Foss Farm

from May 1974 issues of the Mosquito

On land that has been farmed by the Foss family for 66 years, 42 new tenant farmers have sunk their spades. They have paid their $5 fee to the conservation commission for the summer use of a 25- by 30-foot garden plot.

ConsCom has organized the project under the direction of Geroge Bishop and Dave Ives. Mr. Ives reports that it took him three hours to spade his plot by hand. Mr. Foss used to grow corn, squash, beans and tomatoes.

The plots were open to anyone who applied and have drawn both Carlisle residents and out-of-towners, including ten young people from Cambridge. If this year's experiment works out well, more plots could be laid out next year.

One of the many striking advantages to the land, which used to be the elder Mr. Foss' vegetable garden, is an asparagus bed stretching 550 feet down the garden.

Asparagus bed plowed under by mistake

At the conservation commission meeting David and Gilbert Foss, son and grandson of the late William Foss, the former owner of the Foss Farm reported that the new plots were laid out on a fine producing asparagus bed, destroying some roots.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito