D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe was looking for ways his firefighters could get to know residents in the communities they serve.
Steve Salky, a friend of the chief and the head of Everybody Grows, a nonprofit organization that helps District residents establish gardens in their yards, was looking for a place to set up demonstration gardens.
The two were talking one day and came up with the idea to plant gardens in the green space at several local stations. Now, firefighters at Engines 26, 30 and 32 are harvesting kale, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and herbs.
“It gives us an opportunity to engage with the community in a different way, not just responding to emergencies,” Ellerbe said.
There are four gardens at Engine 26 and two each at 30 and 32, Salky said. Everybody Grows, which has six board members, built the 4-by-8 raised beds in early August at the stations, and the firefighters provided the dirt. Salky said his organization purchased starter plants at a local nursery to get the gardens going. In the spring, they hope to grow tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and other fruits and vegetables, and start the gardens from seed.
“We built these raised beds to demonstrate what you can grow and how much you can do in a small space in terms of growing some food that you can eat,” Salky said. The firefighters have passed out flyers in the neighborhoods they serve, explaining the project and the group’s mission of promoting home gardens.
Salky said that the group will build similar raised beds — which are lower-maintenance than gardens in the ground — in residents’ yards for free and help them start their own gardens.
In addition to helping the firefighters eat healthy meals at work, Salky hopes that when the program is expanded in the spring to include more stations and more produce, they will be able to share the fruits and vegetables with members of the community.
Lt. Michael Engels at Engine 26 said members of his station have been watering the gardens regularly and trying to incorporate the ingredients in their meals. Salky encouraged him to have kale or salad for dinner one night last week to take advantage of plants that were peaking.
“I keep going in and telling them that they better pick it now, because in two weeks it will be too late,” Salky said. If the firefighters and emergency responders don’t eat the vegetables, Salky said, they will give them to neighbors. That might get local residents interested in gardening and can help establish the relationships Ellerbe wants.
“Most of our firehouses are located in neighborhoods,” said Ellerbe, who also hopes residents will help the stations care for the gardens. “I don’t want the department or the stations to be an enigma or secret place that people don’t feel connected to. Hopefully, this gives folks in the community a different perspective of us.”