Community Gardens Need Room to Grow

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, February 14, 2008

In the shadow of RFK Stadium, a group of enthusiastic city farmers spent Saturday morning preparing the site of their community garden for the spring season. Nothing too startling about that in late winter, except that the cleanup at the Kingman Park-Rosedale Community Garden reflects not just a seasonal ritual but a quiet revolution in urban agriculture.

The District, like other major cities across the country, is witnessing a renaissance in community gardening as interest in fresh organic food, fears about loss of vacant lots to development and a concern for the health of the planet combine to breathe life into a staid gardening model rooted in the victory gardens of both world wars.

As they join this environmental crusade, new gardening converts are realizing what earlier generations have learned: Beyond the substantial pleasure of raising a cabbage, these collective plots push blight and crime out of a neighborhood and connect fellow residents.

"The biggest factor for me was bringing neighbors together," said Patrick Jordan, who helped to establish the Kingman Park-Rosedale garden four years ago. It is located in an alley behind the 400 block of 21st Street NE.

What is most encouraging about this movement is that it is full of young activists. Jordan is 28; his wife, Jessica, is 27. The gardeners number a dozen and include Karen Young, 28; her husband, Luke Foskett, 27; and Mandie Yanasak, 25, and her fiance, Logan Worsley, 27 -- all of them professionals or graduate students who embody a generational desire to think globally but act (and eat) locally.

"People are starting to believe that their individual action can make an impact" against global warming, said Katie Rehwaldt, program director of America the Beautiful Fund. The Washington-based organization fosters volunteer beautification projects and provides free seeds for programs.

Unfortunately, the District lags far behind New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago and other metropolitan areas in providing help and opportunities for urban gardeners. The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation runs two gardens, but there is no city agency or umbrella organization that connects budding gardeners to plots. An organization called Empower DC is also pushing legislation that would limit the sale of public land for private development, preserving prospective sites for gardens.

As demand for plots grows, so does the wait. Kingman Park-Rosedale is the only one of seven in the greater Capitol Hill area with vacancies this spring, said Pat Taylor, of the Kings Court community garden, an alley-lot site between 14th and 15th streets in Southeast. "Nobody leaves community gardens," Taylor said. "It's like having a rent-control apartment. Our waiting list, I'm guessing, is three or four years before the last person gets a plot."

Grass-roots organizations are seeking to fill parts of the void, especially with the closing last winter of Garden Resources of Washington, a nonprofit organization that helped to establish more than 100 neighborhood green spaces over a span of 24 years. The group's director, Judy Tiger, remains active in the city's fragmented urban gardening movement, which includes efforts to expand youth gardening, especially on school sites, and gardens to both feed and teach marketable skills to the poor.

One of the most successful examples of the latter is the Seventh Street garden in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest. With the help of an army of volunteers, the garden fed more than 30 families last year, co-founder Liz Falk said. She also works for an organization called Washington Parks & People, which is placing more emphasis on establishing community gardens in parks.

Rehwaldt said that "connecting people to available land is far more complicated than it sounds." Sometimes, she said, it is virtually impossible to find the legal owner. And although someone may be desperate to find a plot at an existing garden, "that doesn't mean they're ready to start a whole new garden, which is a huge undertaking," she said.

Rehwaldt helped to organize a forum Feb. 2 at the Josephine Butler Parks Center on 15th Street NW that drew a standing-room- only crowd of about 150, and a sense that this may be a watershed moment for urban gardening.

"Although we aren't trying to start a whole new organization, we are creating some kind of coalition which will be useful to people in the future," she said.

"We haven't all found each other, and that's what was happening at this forum," said Ed Bruske of D.C. Urban Gardeners, a group formed by graduates of the city extension agency's Master Gardener program to promote and assist neighborhood greening efforts. He said community gardens "have always been there, but there's a lot more interest" generated by the convergence of the organic food and environmental movements.

"The energy is there," said Yanasak, a master gardener who is providing technical help to her neighbors in Kingman Park. "We are at a point of trying to move in a direction where community gardening is a bigger part of this city. Other cities are way ahead of us."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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