This past spring, M.J. Crom took a perfectly good plot of soil in the garden she was hired to maintain and covered it with gravel. She wanted it to look like a patio or, better yet, a parking space.
“You don’t have to have green space to grow food in a city,” says Crom, standing on the quarter-acre she has helped cultivate behind the Capital Area Food Bank in Northeast Washington. “But we do have green space, so we’re creating this gravel area to demonstrate what you can do with just containers.”
The garden also features more than two dozen raised beds of varying heights already sprouting leafy greens, peas and pole beans. In other sections, recycled cinderblocks form the boundary for circular herb beds, and eight freshly tilled rows of soil provide space for bigger crops such as corn, though only enough to show that it can be done.
If Crom’s sole mission for this plot of land were to grow food for the nearly half-million hungry people her organization serves, she would do things differently (and consider plowing the parking lot).
The garden should produce several hundred pounds of food for distribution this year, but its broader purpose is on the teach-a-man-to-fish front, or, in this case, to grow food.
The space serves as a living classroom where Crom, the 30-year-old food-growing capacity coordinator and resident green thumb, can train volunteers and staff members from the food bank’s 500 partner agencies who are interested in replicating the growing methods on their own soil.
Those “boots on the ground” agencies include multifaceted nonprofit groups such as Bread for the City (which maintains a remarkable rooftop garden) as well as small soup kitchens, food pantries and churches in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Many of them have made commitments alongside the food bank to provide more fresh produce to their clients. Fruits and vegetables constituted nearly 40 percent of the 45 million pounds of food distributed from the food bank last year, and more of its purchasing dollars than ever are aimed at the produce aisles these days. (Grocery stores and farms also donate produce to the bank.)
“We’re already providing them with fruits and vegetables and recipes [for] the fresh ingredients,” said Nancy Roman, the food bank’s president and chief executive. “But if we could also teach them how to grow their own produce, that would be a real service.”
Crom, who joined the staff a year ago as the garden was coming online, says the grow-your-own movement is spreading quickly among partner agencies. She has worked with 135 of them so far that have gardens or are starting them. One agency’s garden, for instance, consists simply of a few square feet of cilantro, an expensive herb that clients request.
Sandy Griesemer attended Crom’s workshop on container gardening this year after expanding the garden between her house and Landover Hills Baptist Church, where her husband is a pastor, to help supply its food pantry.
“I’m trying to build up my garden to be able to take some of that in and share with them,” said Griesemer, who’s growing eggplants, peppers and tomatoes in a 180-square-foot raised bed with the help of some volunteers.
After attending the course, Griesemer filled 26 milk crates with soil she bought by the truckload from a garden store in Bowie, Md., and added them to her garden. Her church’s food pantry goes through some 3,000 pounds of produce each week to serve 150 families, but Griesemer said the visitors look forward to getting herbs from her garden.
With the help of volunteers, Crom has more than tripled the growing capacity of the food bank’s demonstration garden since last year. And the small space now offers examples of nearly every kind of growing method that might strike a partner agency’s fancy.
The space serves as a garden innovation hub for its clients, similar to the agricultural research facilities run by state universities in Virginia and Maryland, though on a much smaller scale. On a recent visit, aluminum foil lined a raised bed of tomato plants to act as mulch and reflect the sun, confusing pests that might make a home on the underside of the plants’ leaves. Dave Laughlin, a longtime volunteer who’s retired from the University of Maryland extension service and “knows everything,” hatched the idea (when he wasn’t building the shed or the greenhouse).
Other garden volunteers spend much of their time handpicking pests off plants to prevent the need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Crom suggests such pest management techniques to partner gardeners as well, but says, “Whatever works for them is what they should do.”
“If they’re going to occasionally use pesticides,” she says, “that’s an okay tradeoff for being able to have fresh produce for their clients at all.”
Thanks to the food bank, Columbia Baptist Church produced more than 1,000 pounds of food last year from four gardens at its Alexandria and Falls Church locations and donations from home gardeners.
Georgianna Hall helped start the first garden as a volunteer five years ago after attending a course at the food bank, which offered the classes even before its own garden was constructed. Hall conducts a survey each January to ask her food pantry’s clients what they would like to receive from the garden, and she starts planting accordingly in February.
Even with about 3,000 people attending the church, Hall said, the most difficult part is finding enough volunteers to fill all the garden shifts. But, thanks in part to the free labor, the growing project does more than break even now that it’s well established. Hall calculates how much the produce is worth each year and says the gardens now produce twice what they cost.
Crom said that’s the goal for the partner gardens she helps, even if it’s not the goal for her own.
“This garden, as big as it is, its productivity will probably never completely justify its cost,” said Crom. A $22,000 grant helped buy tools and build the raised beds and shed to get the garden started last year. “But if we are able to start 10, 20, 30 partner gardens a year by using this garden to teach them, then that is many, many times the amount of produce we could have purchased with the money we’re spending on the gardens.”
Pipkin, a freelance journalist in Alexandria, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com.