At first glance, the Briggs Chaney Garden Cooperative looks like a prison camp for weeds.
Fences made with chicken wire run alongside fences made with two-by-fours that teeter alongside fences rigged from the plastic orange netting often used at construction sites. Each fence stands at least head-high -- to repel deer -- and each encloses one of 115 plots on two acres of county parkland in Silver Spring. Green stuff pokes up everywhere.
But step closer, and the jumble of fences and weeds reveals plots with neatly planted rows of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and peas. Behind one fence is a carefully tended patch of strawberries. Behind another is a welter of gladioluses. Here and there are ingenious solutions to collecting water, killing pests and growing plants of every kind. In the middle of it all, a handwritten sign jabbing from the earth enjoins: "Grow Darnit."
For $25 a year to rent the land, Toni Smith can leave her Silver Spring apartment, spend a few hours in the sun and fresh air, and grow a bit of paradise on a 20-by-25-foot tract -- not to mention save money on groceries. This year, Smith, 35, planted tomatoes, cilantro, spinach, lettuce, beets, green beans, zucchini, even kohlrabi. Of course, being a former Idahoan, she also put in some potatoes.
"It gives you a better sense of community," Smith said as she and her two boys, Jamison, 5, and Joseph, 4, stuffed freshly cut lettuce into a plastic grocery bag. "It lets the boys get outside more."
Community gardens have been around for almost as long as agriculture. In cities and towns, they pop up wherever there is vacant land and a desire to bring life from it. But there are few in Montgomery County, where big suburban yards seem to make the community gardens less necessary. Roberta Ehrlich, a spokeswoman for the county's Park and Planning Department, said the Briggs Chaney garden is the only known community garden on county land.
Some gardeners wonder if interest is waning at a time when the word "blackberry" to someone under 30 is more likely to conjure thoughts of electronics than a fruit-bearing bush. Mike Welsh, the city gardener in Takoma Park, said even he doesn't plant the way he used to. "I don't do tomatoes anymore. Not enough time," he said.
But some gardeners believe that as suburban areas such as Montgomery County become more developed and urban, community gardens may become more popular. Takoma Park recently began talking about creating them.
"Now that we're getting into extensive land use downcounty, you might see more of a need. Every bit of land is being taken up," Welsh said.
Rockville has a thriving program. The Recreation and Parks Department oversees 177 plots in Woottons Mill Park. Residents pay $40 a year, nonresidents $50. "They're talking about expanding it. It's been wildly popular," said Neil H. Greenberger, a spokesman for the city.
Gaithersburg had a city-run garden program years ago, "but with development, it stopped," said Erica Shingara, an environmental specialist with the city. She said Asbury Methodist Village, a retirement community, runs a community garden program.
So does the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, where people 55 and older till a community garden with 25 plots, said Judy Houseknecht, administrator of the nonprofit organization that funds programs at the county-owned center, on Ferrara Drive. Some grow vegetables, others flowers. One woman tends a rosebush.
"Every [plot] is taken," she said. "We have a long wait list."
In Frederick, the Department of Recreation this year started a community garden program in Willow Brook Park, a new development off Oppossumtown Pike on the city's northern border. Recreation director Roelkey Myers said permits cost $35 a year. All but one of the 10 plots, which are near a bike path in a field and measure about 25 feet by 5 feet, have been signed out.
"Everybody's stopping and saying, 'How did you do this? Who do I call?' '' said gardener Erin Kline, 34, who lives in the Willow Brook townhouses.
Memories of her grandparents' and parents' gardens prompted her to cultivate her first garden, Kline said. And it's a big one, with plenty of room for the pumpkins, corn, squash, watermelons and nasturtiums she has planted.
"My mom's like, 'This isn't a garden. This is what they call a truck patch.' She calls me 'little farmer' now," Kline said.
As much as she loves it and enjoys the exercise -- she has traded workouts at the gym for digging and spading -- she said she also took on the project so her children could get outside and see what it's like to grow things.
On a sunny day recently, while Kline worked a spade, her two children -- Ian, 3, and Kara, 7 -- frolicked with a neighbor's children in nearby Tuscarora Creek.
"I got muddy," Ian said.
"You got muddy? Oh, goodness. Yesterday we had a flip-flop floating down the creek," Kline said.
The Briggs Chaney Garden Cooperative has been around for at least 20 years, said James McAlister, a retired builder who lives in Silver Spring and manages the plot assignments.
James Ries, 75, a retired National Institutes of Health employee who lives in Silver Spring, has been raising flowers and vegetables at the cooperative since 1995. He knows a little about each garden, even if he doesn't know the gardeners themselves.
Last week, while giving a tour of the gardens, he introduced himself to Maribel and T.D. David and chatted a while as the Silver Spring couple hacked at weeds.
"That's the best thing that grows -- weeds," Ries joked.
"Yes," Maribel David said.
"Too many rocks," T.D. David remarked.
"If we had a way to sell them, we'd be rich," Ries said.
Walking among the plots, Ries delighted in the variety of green-thumb tricks and jury-rigged solutions. Because there is no water supply at Briggs Chaney, a group of nuns built a cistern using plywood, plastic tubing and a plastic drum. Someone else cut the bottoms off plastic soda bottles, turned them upside down and inserted them into the soil near the roots of their plants so that the bottles act like funnels. Ries built a tentlike contraption with a blue tarp that catches rainwater and directs it into large pails.
Other approaches are also on display. To keep birds away, one gardener uses a scarecrow, and others have hung strips of red rags, pie tins and even a shiny CD that flutter in the breeze.
"Everybody has their own ideas, and that's where all the junk comes from," Ries said.