It would seem an act of faith to plant anything here in the middle of the city, where cars, trucks and buses rumble past in clouds of exhaust, where passersby sometimes see in a garden, not the vegetables, but a convenient place to toss empty beer cans.
Garden of Hope, it is called. There are 23 plots, each 15 by 20 feet, neatly marked off with secondhand twine and scavenged wooden stakes. The land -- a vacant lot where rowhouses once stood -- is owned by the city, but the garden at the corner of First and M streets NW belongs to the people of the neighborhood.
There are 14 others like it in low-income areas around the city, part of a project of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington. Planting began in April, and already the garden is green and lush and filled with promise, perhaps all the lovelier for its improbable location -- between an abandoned, two-story brick school and a stop for crosstownMetrobuses.
Charles Crafton's string beans are plump, green and ready for eating, as are the zucchini in the gardens of Louisly Garner and Anna Blackburn. Jerondas Vines' collard greens are only a couple of weeks out of the ground. Arthur Rose is new at this, and his peppers and tomatoes are struggling with the weeds. Noble Buchanan's corn stands five feet high. Lula Jackson's cantaloupes lie small and tender on the rocky soil, still many weeks from ripeness.
The master vegetable-grower at the corner of First and M streets is 84-year-old Herbert Ewing, who has spent most of his life tending the lawns and gardens of the more affluent and whose wisdom in the nurturing of plants is prized by the others. He always is the last to plant, and he was out one evening last week, putting in his tomatoes, as the sun sank behind the storefronts and rowhouses along New York Avenue.
"I grew up on a farm in Virginia," he said. "We raised cattle and hogs . . . . I got my first job when I was 13, mowing lawns for 50 cents a day." Ewing's words momentarily were lost as the No. 92 bus stopped noisily at the corner to let off a few passengers, then started up again. The sound of cheering came from a baseball game in a park on the other side of New York Avenue. An ambulance siren whined, one of many that would be heard throughout the evening. But Ewing did not seem to be distracted.
"I don't think about anything out here except these plants, making them grow and bear fruit." He said the secret of growing plants is not really a secret at all: "Just get good rich soil, plant your stuff, keep it all worked out and keep the insects off.".
To Charles Crafton, who grew up in a Baltimore rowhouse where he says he did not learn how to "grow grass in the yard or a flower in a pot," Herbert Ewing is the holder of much secret knowledge. "He has that magic touch," Crafton said as he filled a big plastic bag with his string beans. "He always starts last, but he always has the best garden. We always send the beginners to him. He knows everything. He even knows about roses."
Crafton, a 41-year-old construction worker, recalled his uncertain beginning as an urban gardener. "My coworker got me started. He said, 'I'm going to make a farmer out of you.' I quit on him twice. I didn't know anything. I grew the plants too close, and I was crushing 'em as I was picking 'em. My buddy said, 'You're putting 'em too close together.' I said, 'This is my garden.' "
Crafton has come a long way since then. The Council of Churches gave him the title of supervisor, which meant that he had the nonpaying job of laying out the plots, free to anyone in the neighborhood who wanted to plant.
His garden is beautiful. He has Better Boy tomatoes growing up a fence he made himself from leftover construction mesh. He has white potatoes spilling out of three tires stacked one on top of the other; a friend told him about growing white potatoes in tires. He has Georgia collard greens that he says will grow two feet high. He has big green peppers called California wonders -- "Those are my babies; I eat 'em on everything, I could bite into one right now" -- onions, okra, and string beans, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of string beans.
"I love my string beans," he said, but he does not look nearly so tenderly upon his yellow squash. "See those things? I hate 'em. I hate 'em! " Crafton grows the despised vegetable in deference to his wife, who loves yellow squash.
Two boys in shorts and T-shirts walked past. "Mr. Charles," one called. "You need anything from the store?" Crafton said that he did not. The garden behind the aluminum fence -- each gardener has a key to the front gate, but they say there is no vandalism -- is a good place for people-watching. There are the gardeners to watch, of course. And there also is a constant procession of cyclists and joggers, and boys walking to the store, and children chasing the Good Humor man.
In the beige brick townhouses across First Street, where many of the gardeners live, the people sit on their stoops. On this night, a breeze stirred the leaves of the elm tree that shades Crafton's plot. Beside the garden is the Metropolitan Boys' Club, and through the doorway of the gym, open to the cool evening air, came the sound of a basketball game.
In the plot next to Crafton is Anna Blackburn, donor of a hose for the Garden of Hope, who waters everyone's vegetables. "If mine needs watering, everyone's does," she said. The 64-year-old Blackburn, like Herbert Ewing, shuts out the din and distraction of the city while she is tending her plants. "I was born on a farm in West Virginia," she said. "We grew all we ate . . . . This brings back beautiful, happy days: chickens and hogs and running around."
The secret behind the abundance of Blackburn's garden is the moon. "I plant by the moon signs," she said. "When the moon is full, I plant all my bottom crops: beets and carrots and potatoes. When the moon is new, I plant all my top crops: corn and cabbage and kale."
The moon was out now, but it held no special interest for Anna Blackburn. It was a three-quarter moon that cast a pale glow across the streets and parked cars, the old rowhouses and new apartment projects, the darkened storefronts and the abandoned school building with its glass-strewn playground -- and across the lovingly tended gardens that sit in the middle of the city.