Residents who stroll through Newton this summer will be greeted by vibrant-hued pansies poking out from pots adorning outdoor dining spaces, planted by volunteers in hopes of driving business to local restaurants.
In usual years, the city would hire landscapers during the summers to plant flowers in village centers and on traffic islands. But when pandemic-induced budget cuts halted the beautification program in 2020, City Councilor Alicia Bowman immediately began brainstorming.
“As soon as they were canceled, I said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to figure out how to get those out,’” Bowman said. “I thought it would be a shame if the flowers didn’t get planted.”
After months of advocating for a volunteer-led effort to plant the flowers, she said, Bowman got her chance in July: The city had decided to lend its planters to restaurants with outdoor seating. She launched the “Adopt-A-Pot” initiative to plant the flowers at restaurants to help them attract more customers during the financial crisis imposed by the pandemic.
This year, as Newton approaches its second summer of outdoor dining in the COVID-19 era, Bowman’s Adopt-A-Pot endeavor is expanding.
The budget for the upcoming fiscal year will be released May 12, according to Ellen Ishkanian, Newton’s director of community communications. At least until then, the city’s usual flower-planting initiative remains on pause.
In the meantime, Bowman’s volunteer-funded effort is decorating public dining spaces, and more than three times as many restaurants are receiving pots. Eateries across the city also have prepared larger seating areas
Among these is Tommy Doyle’s Pub in Nonantum, which just installed a patio seating space about three weeks ago. The local bar requested volunteers to plant flowers in the four pots it planned to place between each of its barriers, said manager Katie Barret.
“This is our first crack at outdoor dining,” Barret said. “If it weren’t for regulars, it would have been a very hard year for us. But there’s a lot of people who really, really did their best to keep coming in or keep ordering takeout.”
The restaurant has stayed afloat over the past year largely due to word-of-mouth support from the residents of Nonantum, she said. While indoor dining has plummeted, according to Barret, takeout and Grubhub delivery rates have increased significantly since the pandemic.
The inconsistent weather has posed a challenge to outdoor dining so far, Barret said, but customer feedback indicates patrons are “very excited” about taking a seat outdoors. A sizable portion of Tommy Doyle’s usual customers also came from the surrounding businesses, which have not fully returned yet to in-person work.
“I’m hoping [the tables will] be full every day,” she said. “I think it’s going to make a huge difference to us this summer, once it heats up properly.”
The number of people who signed up to volunteer in the Adopt-A-Pot initiative surpassed the number of restaurants that needed help, Bowman said, but she hopes to ensure everybody gets to do something. The volunteers who aren’t assigned to a task this round can participate in a few weeks when it’s time to switch out the pansies with flowers more suited to the summer heat.
Residents can choose whether to volunteer their time to plant the flowers, their money to purchase supplies, or both.
For Sunrise of Newton, a new facility of Sunrise Senior Living — a Virginia-based company with hundreds of locations — that officially opened Monday, the project fell right in line with the community’s values, according to reminiscence coordinator Hillary Therriault, who has partnered with Bowman.
Once residents move in, she said, the activity will help them interact with their city throughout the summer.
“Residents who live with Sunrise, there’s always been a huge positive reaction to our generosity projects, and they love getting involved in the community,” Therriault said. “That’s really our goal, is to really become part of the Newton community.”
Newton Community Pride, a nonprofit arts, culture and service organization, has been working to beautify the city for years. During the pandemic, the group has also teamed up with Bowman to direct its efforts toward the city’s designated takeout dining spaces.
“With small businesses and restaurants hurting this year because of COVID as well as last, we thought it would be a lovely idea to help the restaurants beautify their spaces with plantings,” said Gloria Gavris, board chair of Newton Community Pride.
The gardening work is part of a larger “Newton Al Fresco” program launched April 1 to stimulate outdoor dining. Along with the flower planting, artists are painting jersey barriers and art murals, and bistro tables are being placed on green areas across the city.
Pat Rand, a longtime member of Newton Community Pride’s Beautification Committee, is among the volunteers. She loves seeing the flowers they planted around the village, she said, and the sight of them often conjures up new ideas about how they could have arranged them instead, or how they might choose to arrange them next time.
She said she’s been gardening for at least 30 years, but her love for the craft came later in life.
“When I was a kid, my grandmother used to force me to weed her flowers, and I hated it,” Rand said one afternoon in April as she poured water over one of the planters in Newton Centre. “But it’s really fun when you have the space and the time to get plants and take care of them. It’s such a rewarding thing to do.”
Angela Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.