Finding Growth: Emily Strong and the Giving Garden at Rolling Ridge

This is a story about growth.

Literal growth. Green beans and sunflowers and bok choy kind of growth. But also the growth of an individual. The growth of an organization. The growth of a garden.

Emily Strong, Farm Manager at the Giving Garden at Rolling Ridge, remembers when the garden was just the seed of an idea. She remembers talking about it with people from her church; with friends and family; with anyone who would listen. Some loved it. Others—and Emily can distinctly remember this as well—simply stared at her uncomprehending, and then politely changed the subject.

“I remember there was this one point, during a meeting about it in church,” says Emily. “Someone said, ‘How would this work?’ And I raised my hand and said, ‘Well, if we could find land for a garden, we could gather a core bunch of people—people who like gardening and who like volunteering.  We could have youth come through, and other volunteers from the community. And the garden would help kids to engage with nature and the natural world. It would teach people about gardening. And then we’d harvest the produce and give it all away—to people who might not have access to fresh and healthy vegetables, through food pantries and shelters and places like that.’”

There was consensus and excitement. A common vision was taking root. “I remember thinking,” says Emily, “‘It would be the coolest thing if we could pull this off.’”

Emily Strong, Farm Manager for the Giving Garden at Rolling Ridge, inside the garden’s new greenhouse

That was nine years ago. Emily tells me this story while we’re seated on sturdy wooden benches underneath an awning covered in vines. Before us, spread out across nearly half an acre, is the garden, the Giving Garden. There are neat lines of plants branching off a center aisle, carpeted with wood chips. Each furrow and row abounds with a shock of green and growing things. A little to one side of the garden sits an outdoor wash station, complete with sinks and running water. Behind it is a squat but handsome greenhouse. Behind that, and just on the other side of the mesh fencing surrounding the entire garden, I can make out compost boxes, as well as small sheds equipped with little solar panels. Very cool indeed.

More impressive still: 90% of the fruit and vegetables from the garden will be given away, free of charge. Cherry tomatoes, blueberries, carrots, and all the rest—they’ll be sent along in bright yellow bins to food deserts and economically-challenged communities in Essex County, MA, to feed infants and elders and everybody in between. The remaining 10% of the produce is sent down the hill to our retreat house, where it will be served in our Rolling Ridge dining room—organic, farm-to-table food; a tangible example of the value we place on centering the natural world in order to restore the human spirit.

Right: Food from the Giving Garden is delivered to communities in Lawrence, MA. Left: Liset Garcia, Food Access Coordinator at Lazarus House, receives produce from the garden

It’s a great story. For the casual viewer, it looks readily like the success it is. But anyone who’s ever farmed, or even tried their hand at gardening, will know that there’s been copious amounts of dirt, sweat, and tears along the way. A year or two before she was hired as Farm Manager in 2021, Emily almost had to quit the garden entirely. Growth doesn’t come without a struggle.

The garden isn’t Emily’s garden. It isn’t technically Rolling Ridge’s garden either, although the garden is on our property and we are one of its major partners and supporters. The Giving Garden was launched by South Church in Andover. Originally the brainchild of the church’s pastor, Rev. Dana Allen Walsh, as well as a cadre of founding members and volunteers from within the congregation, the Garden has remained a ministry of South Church ever since. They set out looking for land, and eventually found their way to the Ridge. Just over nine years ago, a partnership was formed. We view it as an extension of our ministry of hospitality, creation care, and social justice. The garden’s leadership brings hundreds of volunteers to our land, and thousands of pounds of organic, healthy fruit and vegetables are nurtured in our soil, then sent out to food pantries in our community. It’s a demonstration of the power of collective action and institutional cooperation: there’s always more when we work together.

A circle of love and ecology: Rolling Ridge compost (top left) is used in the Giving Garden; Rolling Ridge bees help pollinate the produce (photos at the top right and bottom left are from our “Blessing of the Bees” ceremony this spring); and Giving Garden produce is prepared and served by Rolling Ridge chefs (bottom right)

That said, I am still captivated with Emily’s story. Yes, it takes a village, as they say, but there are few people in that village as devoted to this project as Emily. She tells me that a few years ago, before there was a greenhouse on property, her living room was awash in the glow of twelve enormous sets of ‘grow lights,’ and the faint miasma of soil. She was growing the garden’s seedlings at home. In good weather, the plants would be shuffled out into the sunshine on the back deck. And in bad weather, one of her teenagers would yell, “Thunderstorm! We’ve got to save mom’s plants!” and everyone would sprint to bring dozens of seedbeds back inside.

Emily has always had a passion for gardening. “We moved around a lot when I was a kid,” she tells me. “Wherever we moved, I would always try to find a patch of dirt where I could grow something.” She planted her first garden in third grade, after discovering in science class that popcorn was a seed. "I rode my bike home, and I climbed up on the shelf top of the cabinet and got the Orville Redenbacher down. I took a handful of kernels and planted them in a patch of wretched dirt beside the garage. They sprouted and grew as tall as I was. I was so proud!”

The difficulty of being that dedicated to a project you love is that the project can quickly take over your life. Up until they hired Emily last year, the garden was run entirely by volunteers. And for many years, the volunteers were sometimes sparse. The garden’s leadership team set up regularly scheduled volunteer opportunities, but sometimes no volunteers would show up—even after Emily had pulled her kids out early from swimming sessions at a local pool, or hurried back from a hiking excursion in New Hampshire. Emily wasn’t the only person carrying the burden, of course, but with children at home and a part-time job, she was especially feeling the pinch. “I realized that this was a huge imposition on my family, and I needed to set some boundaries. I just could not be there five days a week unpaid.”

Produce grown at the Giving Garden this past season


That was 2021. Emily started making changes. She started going in only one day a week, and devoted her remaining time to developing a planting plan and weekly schedule, handing over the responsibility to others to keep the garden going. From Emily’s perspective, it was a bumpy transition. “In 2020, we grew almost 10,000 pounds of produce. The next year, in 2021, we grew closer to 5,000. I was so depressed and burnt out and… heartbroken.”

But she was learning, and so were the other volunteers and leaders. It was clear to everyone that the Giving Garden needed a Farm Manager—and when funding was finally secured through a grant and donations, who better than Emily? Indeed, in the years before and during her transition, she had been growing as well. “I could not have been hired as a farm manager five years ago,” she confessed to me. “I didn’t know enough.” Not only had she spent every intervening winter attending farming conferences and studying the subject—even enrolling in classes at a UMass extension site—but she had been learning from the difficult transition of 2021. In her other job, and through those planting plans and volunteer schedules, she had been growing skills in farming, but also managing: working with staff, delegating responsibility to partners, and cultivating a network of relationships to sustain the work.

Community volunteers serve in the Giving Garden include elected officials—MA State Rep. Tram T. Nguyen, MA State Senator Bruce Tarr, and MA State Rep. Adrianne Ramos, pictured bottom right

“I’d like to say I made it all happen,” says Emily, “But really, South Church rallied so many people.” The Giving Garden’s Board of Directors was formed; planning committees were galvanized; new donations were found, and grant money came in so that last year, Emily could begin in her new role as Farm Manager. It’s a job she’s dreamed of and worked on for nearly a decade. From where I sit, underneath the vine-covered awning overlooking the half-acre, and having just said goodbye to a dozen volunteers whose workplace was sponsoring a day of community service at the Garden, it certainly seems like it’s the collective effort of the last few years is paying off. But I have a new appreciation for growth.

Youth volunteers at the Giving Garden. The majority of all Giving Garden volunteers are youth and young adults

There’s so much inherent struggle—so much investment and toil and hope and happenstance—that goes into almost every long-term result worth having. A garden is perhaps the quintessential teacher of such lessons—lessons that those of us disconnected from the land are likely to miss. Most days, when I look down and see fresh fruit and vegetables on my plate, I think: ‘How nice.’ I do my best to thank God. If I’m doing very well, I thank the farmer. But I don’t think much more about it than that. It’s easy to forget that the cherry tomato in front of you was grown from a plant raised from a tiny seed; a growing thing that has weathered howling storms and blazing heat; that it is the result of just the right combination of soil and sun and rain and skillful care. There is so much life that is invested into something so small.

And for the Giving Garden, part of that life is human life—the human effort that goes into praying, planning, planting, and all the rest. It’s why Rolling Ridge is so proud to provide the land for the Giving Garden and to support the work of Emily and the rest of the Garden’s esteemed leadership. Not only because we believe in the outcome—providing fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables for our neighbors here in Massachusetts, a state where as many as 1 in 3 households are food insecure. But also, because we believe in the process. There’s a spirituality to growth, which nature teaches to all who will listen. “You reap what you sow,” say the Christian Scriptures. It’s not a threat, but simply a statement of fact—perhaps even a kind of divine promise.

Invest where you want to develop. Plant into your life the things you wish to reap—especially things that will allow you to love and serve others. Get ready to do some work, and to invite others to join you and help you. But get ready to receive a “harvest of righteousness and peace,” as the New Testament puts it—an abundance that’s multiplied many times over, for the blessing and benefit of all.

Emily Strong is the Farm Manager of the Giving Garden at Rolling Ridge. This past year, she was named a “2023 Citizens Who Care Honoree” by the Rotary Club of Andover. Learn more about the Giving Garden on their Facebook page, or sign up to volunteer right here.