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News from the Hill June 13, 2012 | back to index

The Hanging Gardens of Newton

A young filmmaker’s home gardening project may have run afoul of city zoning, but it’s adding new life to the interfaith community garden shared by Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College.

The 34 hanging tomato plants and their 13-foot wooden pavilion that have settled in next to the garden plot this month belong to Eli Katzoff, 26, who had initially built the structure in the front yard of his childhood home near Route 9, the Boston Globe reported.

imageWhile some of the plants are designated for CSA-style farming (community supported agriculture, in which donors take home a portion of the harvest), the garden was also designed as a way of giving to the community:  Visitors to the project’s web site can donate $25 to sponsor a plant, and its yield will be donated to an area food pantry. Each plant is estimated to provide about 20 pounds of tomatoes.  “You just can’t buy that much produce” for $25, Katzoff said. In total, the project is predicted to generate some 600 pounds of tomatoes for food pantries.

Katzoff had already sold some tomato containers to friends and had decided to donate the rest of the harvest to local food pantries, the globe noted. But zoning officials told Katzoff he would have to remove the structure and the plants, citing safety and aesthetic concerns.

“The irony in this otherwise humorous situation is that zoning laws are, by definition, supposed to preserve the ‘character of a community,’ and in this case they are having the exact opposite impact,” said Andover Newton President Nick Carter. “This is a couple who are demonstrating great character, and the city’s zoning laws are discouraging that character.  Ministry is all about character; it is the core of what Andover Newton teaches.  So, I say, bring me the tomatoes! Big, fat, juicy ones!”

“It really came down to codes,” Katzoff said. Building the garden in his parents’ front yard instead of the back yard opened it to greater scrutiny, and the fact that he’d consulted a mechanical engineer rather than a structural engineer meant that he didn’t have the option of leaving it intact while contesting the order to remove the garden.

  “All we needed was for it to hold up tomato plants and not fall over in the rain,” Katzoff said, but city codes would have required a much more permanent structure. “All the (building) codes were designed for people to walk on, not for growing tomato plants.”

  The city offered Katzoff three alternative sites, but he found them all wanting; there was a risk at each location of the fruits being picked by third parties. His girlfriend and “partner in crime” Melissa Hoffman is a cantorial student at neighboring Hebrew College, Katzoff said, and knew some students through a Jewish gardening and agriculture program that is starting.  The couple reached out to Andover Newton, and President Carter “embraced us with open arms,” Katzoff said. “It was great.”

“Who can be against tomatoes?!” Carter asked. The couple’s dispute with the city had made its way into print and broadcast news and was becoming the talk of some blogs in the days before the announcement to move the garden to the theological school. “Institutions should be helping good people do good things, not preventing them from it.”

The notion of a Jewish school and Christian school coming together and “making this very ethical garden – it adds to the flavor of the thing,” Katzoff said.  The plants will live in a spot overlooking the city, which Katzoff called an “ideal” location. “In the nicest of ways, it’s been a blessing.”