Ralph Gagliardo's grandfather had a garden at his home in South Windsor, and today, Gagliardo tends some vegetable gardens himself. They're in two big pots outside the First Presbyterian Church next door to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.
"It brings back memories, and it's nice to commune with nature in the city," Gagliardo said. "And what it represents is awesome."
What the gardens represent is a little bit of income for members of the homeless community like Gagliardo. The BOTS Pots program, an offshoot of the Beat of the Street newspaper, is now in its third year. Charter Oak Cultural Center assigns homeless people to tend the pots and gets local artists to decorate them.
Penny Micca painted Gagliardo's pots, with a theme of vegetables. Anita Gangi Balkun painted the ones at South Church, 675 Main St., with a theme of giraffes. Linda Lee painted the pots at SS Cyril and Methodius Church, 55 Charter Oak Ave., with ballerinas and hydrangeas. Lee also painted tiger lilies on a pot at the Charter Oak center, 21 Charter Oak Ave., which also has a pot painted by Cheryl Cianci. Margaux Hayes painted a book-themed design on pots at Center Church, Lewis and Gold streets, and even sprayed silver paint on the surrounding foliage. The pots at Grace Lutheran Church, 46 Woodland St., were decorated by Louisa Barton Duguay with turtles and fish. Betsy Carnes put charming artistic animals — a bird with an easel, a skunk writing, a bunny sculpting — on pots in front of the library's Goodwin Branch, 460 New Britain Ave. The pot at the main branch library, 500 Main St., is not decorated. There are also two unpotted gardens, in front of the center and at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church, 285 Church St.
Other gardeners are Liz Stoever, Jennifer Malon, Karen Yamashita, Cord Smith, Jose Claussel, Denise Olang, Sarah Ratchford and Stella Brown.
Each pot costs $1,200 to $1,600 per growing season for supplies and gardener pay. The artists contribute their work free of charge. The gardeners are paid in Wal-Mart gift cards. Local organizations fund the program and plants are donated by Comstock, Ferre & Co. and Urban Oaks Organic Farm.
"The homeless community is trying to better itself, to make an effort," said Charter Oak spokeswoman Donna Larcen. "And the artists like to have their work seen. We have a good relationship with artists from all our gallery shows."
The vegetables are free, for anyone who wants to pick something. There is a downside to that: There's nothing stopping squirrelly kids from picking the unripe fruit and wasting it. "We can hope people wait until they're ripe before they take them," Larcen said.