Standing under a jumble of overhead utility wires, across from a bleak tableau of warehouses, billboards and auto body shops, Don Garcia plowed the earth for fall planting, before checking his late summer corn crop.
Garcia is part of an agricultural phenomenon taking place throughout Northern Virginia, where thousands of suburban residents stake out small plots of land from early spring to late fall. The gardeners are taking advantage of public gardening programs sponsored by Arlington, Fairfax County and Alexandria, in which the three jurisdictions allow residents to rent a small garden plot for a nominal fee.
Garcia's plot is one of 100 plots, 20-by-30 feet each, stretching for half a mile along a median strip on South Four Mile Run Drive, one of the busiest streets in the most industrialized section of Arlington.
"Even though there's cars on either side of you, you can abstract yourself," says Garcia, 45. "It's a relaxing thing to do just by yourself."
Arlington rents 325 plots at 11 locations, while Fairfax County offers 1,000 plots in 10 areas, and Alexandria offers 100 spaces at two locations.
Lured by the appeal of home-grown produce, a chance to spend a few hours in the sun and incredibly cheap rents for cleared and plowed gardens, would-be farmers vie for the few public plots available each year.
In Arlington a 20-by-30 foot plot costs $10 a season, or $15 with water, while Fairfax charges $25 for a 20-by-30 foot plot. Alexandria charges $15 a season to rent the 20-by-20 foot plots the city makes available to residents.
At those prices, area administrators report, there's always a mid-winter scramble to throw in the trowel. "We just completely sell out," said Fairfax Park Authority Maintenance Supervisor Bob Royce. "Normally, (plots) are gone within 35 to 40 minutes when we have the sign-up."
The public gardens feature everything from beans to zucchini. But "tomatoes are by far the most popular crop," notes Arlington extension agent Francis Lay. "Everybody likes 'em. They're easy to grow and they're readily available."
By contrast, Lay warns, "Corn is not a good crop to grow on that small a lot. It's cheaper to go out and buy corn."
Although flowers are interspersed among the vegetables, most people look forward to eating what they plant. "It's amazing how many vegetables they can raise on that 20-by-20 plot," said Marge Cooley, director of the Alexandria program. Plans call for a 40 percent expansion of the program. "They freeze a lot of stuff and use it all year. It's cheaper and better than the grocery store."
"I've already been able to freeze tomato sauce," said Evelyn Luis of Arlington one recent Sunday while she and her husband worked their fenced-in plot in Shirlington. "I find the only thing I need to buy in the supermarket is everything minus vegetables."
With sophisticated tools, pesticides and fertilizers, some gardeners can spend up to $100 a season on their plots, says Lay. But they also can grow enough tomatoes, for example, to can 40 quarts, he says. "You can more than break even."
Perhaps the biggest yield is psychic: the satisfaction that comes from nurturing a few seeds in the earth and seeing them grow into life's most basic necessity in a region where most residents produce only paperwork. "They get the satisfaction of just growing it," sums up Royce.
And the gardening programs are a form of urban farmsteading for home and apartment dwellers in the crowded suburbs. "The average house here in Fairfax County," says Royce, "was probably built on less than a half-acre or a quarter-acre lot."
Gardeners can perpetually hold on to garden claims they've staked in each Northern Virginia jurisdiction.
"We have a policy that if people are gardening and they do a good job, they can have their gardens back," Lay said. "It's almost like owning a piece of land."
However, the landlord does have rules. In Arlington, each garden location selects a chief gardener, who serves as a liaison with the county. If a plot becomes unruly, the renter is given the boot. "It doesn't take too long for a garden to get messy if you let too many uninterested people hang on," Lay says.
And the gardens can't be used to earn spare cash.
"Under this permit," Fairfax Park Authority rules admonish, "garden produce will be grown only for a family's personal use and no products may be offered for sale."
"Late summer is still the peak of the gardening season because of the rain," Royce said. And while summer peas may be exchanged for pumpkins, he added, "they'll be out there in October, on up until November."
"Last year, I was getting broccoli until December," said gardener Luis.
The plots, according to local officials, draw a cross-section of residents, from groups of friends who share a plot to the single gardener.
"We figure there's probably about 2.5 people per plot," calculated agricultural expert Lay.
"There's all kinds of talent and experience here," says Shirlington gardener Garcia, who notes that one of his gardening colleagues drives up to her plot in a stately Lincoln Continental.
John Luis spends every weekday evening in his tightly packed garden plot, partly because it reminds him of growing up on a farm in Portugal and because it allows him to engage proudly in the familiar green thumb boast.
"I grant you," he says proudly, "we've had over 200 pounds of tomatoes."