District RESIDENTS could eat well this year from gardens grown on vacant lots, says Allison Brown, coordinator of the just-born Neighborhood Gardens program.

Neighborhood Gardens is out looking for vacant lots that could become community gardens. Willing owners -- private or government agencies -- of such lots should call Brown at 727-2007.

Allison Brown first undertook the Neigborhood Gardens project as a volunteer for the Center for Community Resources -- a private, nonprofit group. When she proposed the idea to the District of Columbia extension service, she was hired for a six-month trial.

"The Department of Housing, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Recreation -- all have land they're not using that could be put to good use by urban gardeners," claims Brown. "DOT, for instance, has lots of roadside land to be used for future roadways -- sometimes the roads are never built. This land may be gardenable." Though she has some leads, she's still working to find her first one.

Would-be gardeners, of course, have to have written permission to use other people's land.

Brown's search is important, she feels, especially with all the talk regarding food stamp cutbacks. "For poor families, gardening may be a way to make up the differance. Instead of paying 50 cents for one tomatoe in a grocery store, gardeners spend the same 50 cents for one package of tomatoe seeds, or $1.50 for six tomatoe plants. "Salad gardens are another great supplement to a family's income," says Brown. "Although lettuce doesn't grow well here in the summer, kale or mustard greens grow well all year long. Growing your own can put a sizable cut in your food budget, especially with the cost of lettuce and other greens in the off-season."

Brown points out that gardening is one way pepole can help themselves, and so should be popular in the face of budget cuts in social welfare programs. a"We've had some support from Congress such as Rep. Frederick Richmond (D-N.Y.) and Rep. George Brown (D.-Ca.), as well as members of the local city government," she said.

Brown suggests that people look within their community for empty lots. To find out who owns the lot, check with the real estate division of the Martin Luther King Library. "Ownership of property is a matter of public record in D.C." notes Brown.

"Send a letter to the owner asking for permission to garden. In many cases permission will be granted because owners would rather have a well-tended garden on their property than leave it open for parked cars."

Brown said: "Wherever I go I see empty lots. The first thing I do is look at its size, see where the nearest fire hydrant or home is and take note of how close the property is to the roadway." Size, access to water and distance from roadways are all factors that determine a good or a bad gardening plot. "In other urban gardening programs, the fire department has granted permission to use the hydrants. Other times coopertive arrangements have been made with homeowners who supply the water and hose in exchnage for help with paying the bill."

The plan is popular with property owners because the land is maintained, notes Brown. Libby Goldstein, coordinator of the Philadelphia branch of the USDA-funded 16-City Program, says that Philadelphia estimates it has saved between $30,000 and $40,000 in maintenance costs with its community gardens.

"The 16-City Program gardening rights on land, as we hope to do," says Brown, who studied the 16-City Program for her horticulture master's degree. The 16 cities are: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

USDA program leader Rick Gomez says the program also teaches gardening, etc. This year, says Gomez, the more than 200,000 gardeners in the program expect to raise between $5.7 million and $5.8 million in vegetables and fruits.

Although Washington isn't part of this program, the District has had community gardens since World Wars I and II. Victory gardens sprang up arund town -- even on the Mall -- as part of the war effort, when Americans were asked to grown their own vegetables.

The metropolitan area already has about 4,000 garden plots ranging in size from 10-by-20 feet to 30-by-50 feet. Some are free; others cost up to $15. Many of the plots are run by The National Park Service or by the D.C. Recreation Department, but there's very little turnover. Unfortunatley, most of the plots are not only allocated but have waiting lists.

Another sevice is the "Hort-Line." D.C. residents can call 282-7400 (Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-noon) for over-the-phone advice on everything ranging from pest control and fetilizers to how to grow a particular vegetable or flower.Bill Easley, program leader for the Natural Resource and Horticulture Division of the D.C. Extension Service, under whose domain the Hort-Line falls, says they have experts on most any topic. "We give information on landscaping as well as plant pesticides, insects and plant pathology. We also test soil -- free of charge."

To have your soil tested, says Easley, call the Hort-Line and request a box with instructions for soil testing. The caller should indicate how many areas are to be tested -- soil from the front lawn, back lawn, vegetable or flower garden. The resident can take the soil samples to one of four locations where the extension service picks up. The samples are then analyzed at the extension service's plant, where the soil is tested for acidity as well as for phosphorous, potassium and magnesium content. Within 3-4 weeks the result are mailed back to the resident.

Beginning this month, the extension service is holding a Farmers' Market every Tuesday and Thursday, noon till dusk at RFK Staduium on East Capitol Street (take Metro's Blue Line to the Stadium/Armory stop). Fresh farm produce grown in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey will be sold at reasonable prices, according to Easley.

Brown adds that they are now setting up "living garden" exhibits. The exhibits will demonstrate good gardening techniques. So far one site has been approved for the grounds of the National Zoo.

"The extension service," explains Allison Brown, "is part of the Land Grant University System, created in the early 1900s. Every state (including the District) has an extension service. In the District, the University of the District of Columbia operates it. Originally the extension service was intended for people who were unable to attend classes. The service was primarily agricultural.

"As the population shifted, the service grew to include programs for both urban and non-urban communities. Today the extension service attempts to improve the quality of life -- all aspects -- through education and technical assistance," according to Brown.

The extension service is composed of four programs: Community Development, Home Economics, Natural Resources and Horticulture and the 4-H (youth) program. Neighborhood Gardens falls under the 4-H program, says Brown, despite the fact that it serves not only young people but families and entire communities.