Following a Growing Drama, With Many Plots

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, April 17, 2008

I have had fun in community gardens everywhere from the Bronx to the English Midlands, where they're called allotments, but the one I keep returning to is the Glover Park Community Garden in Northwest Washington.

It's not just that it is nearby; it is one of the largest and most vital community gardens around, a place where the soil has been cultivated since its creation as a World War II victory garden.

More than 150 plots occupy a hillside between the heavily wooded park and 42nd Street NW. Each is draped in fencing against deer, and the effect is of a weird and slightly tattered veil. But even in early spring, in its bare and unfulfilled state, the place has a magical air.

The garden is so large that even the early-season frenzy fails to yield a throng, but when I wander the narrow paths I see that many of the early birds already have done their soil preparation and winter weeding.

If you look carefully, you can see the first seedlings bursting out of the crusty soil.

The other magnet, apart from the garden, is a fellow named Dino Kraniotis, whose double plot stands at a prominent corner of the garden. Like many of the gardeners, he lives in one of the neighborhood apartment buildings. The 61-year-old Kraniotis, a musician, has been growing fruit, herbs and veggies here for more than 20 years.

He is the chairman of the community garden: the guy who manages the waiting list, assigns plots to new gardeners, helps people find mulch and fencing and planking, and makes sure the spigots are in good order when the piped water is turned on in late March. He also polices the plots to make sure they do not become too weedy or neglected.

When you ask him questions, his responses are usually either enlightening or funny. He ribbed me about a column I wrote on an arctic seed bank that would feed the world after Armageddon. "Who's going to plant the seeds?" he asked with a straight face. "The cockroaches?"

Kraniotis is one of the earliest to start the garden year, sowing cool-season greens and peas in mid-February. That gives him more time to deal with all the administrative issues at start-up time in March and April. In late winter, I went to see Kraniotis and floated this idea: Would he and some of his fellow gardeners allow us to track their progress through the season? Sure, he shrugged. So we bring you today at the first in a series of videos showing the progress of the garden through the growing season.

Approximately once a month through the fall, we will return to the featured gardens and show the progress of the plants, the successes and setbacks of the gardeners, and, not least, the astonishing physical transformation of the plots in particular and the horti-tropolis in general. We anticipate learning a lot about growing techniques, which can differ widely from plot to plot, and discovering new varieties of herbs and vegetables.

Most of all, we look forward to introducing readers and viewers to the gardeners. In the first episode, you will meet Lisa Paoletti, a business analyst at Fannie Mae and a novice scrambling to convert Plot F-8N from an empty and weedy patch into a source of fresh produce. "It's nice to think you are able to eat the things you grow yourself, organically," said Paoletti, 33.

Mark Wilkerson is a 42-year-old teacher entering his third season at Glover Park. He spent much of the past month weeding his patch, officially Plot H-3N, and is in fine shape for spring planting.

Todd and Lissie Barbosa waited two years for Plot D-5S. They took tenancy a year ago and are so keen that they kept it up through the winter, sowing spinach, arugula and other cold-hardy greens. Both are medical residents who work long hours, so the garden becomes a place to unwind and relax, if only for half an hour in the early evening. Todd Barbosa is 27; his wife, 31.

Theirs is the face of a quiet revolution occurring in the gardening world at the moment. After years of steady decline, seed sales to consumers are on the rise, according to seed merchants.

"Our home garden business is up substantially this year," said Mike Comer, general manager of Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. "It was up a little last year, and that was a turnaround point from years of continual decline."

"People in the seed business were feeling a little like we were a fossil. Now something old is new again," said Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden Seeds in Felton, Calif.

As the Barbosas demonstrate, "I think a lot of young people are more interested in growing things for different reasons," Shepherd said. Those reasons vary from an effort to reduce one's carbon footprint by avoiding trucked food to concern over food safety. The downturn in the economy and the rising cost of groceries are also seen as factors.

"We have seen historically in a time when people are spending less money that they'll turn back to more traditional home pursuits, like gardening," said Jeff Gibson of Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago, Ill.

Whether the trend will last is another matter. Comer has his doubts: "Gardening is wonderful for those of us who have a religious devotion to it, but the average consumer who is going to dig up 200 square feet of sod for a garden is in for a rude awakening."

As he's saying that, I'm thinking of Paoletti constructing her garden beds, and I'm hoping she won't become disillusioned by the labor. Stay tuned.

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