Right about now Bobbi Ponce-Barger should be harvesting her jalapeno peppers and cherry tomatoes and thinking about planting lettuce and spinach.
But not this year. The community garden that has anchored her Adams Morgan neighborhood -- and brought together folks who shared the soil and the sun and the joy of growing -- is closed.
The garden is in Walter C. Pierce Community Park, nestled between the Duke Ellington Bridge and the National Zoo. Officials with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation said they had to close the garden this past spring for an erosion prevention project. But it is unclear when the garden will reopen, and even whether it will occupy the same area.
"We've been hearing rumblings about how something needed to be done for years," Ponce-Barger said. "We didn't really believe it would happen."
For suburbanites blessed with an expanse of land or even rowhouse dwellers with a patch of dirt out back, the loss of a community garden might not seem like a big deal. But in Adams Morgan, one of the densest neighborhoods in the densest part of the city, Ward 1, the loss of the garden means more than just having to head to the Safeway for tomatoes.
"The value of gardening in a city is that everyone needs nature," said Judy Tiger, executive director of Garden Resources of Washington (GROW), which advises community gardens owners. "It gives people a sense of place and belonging in their neighborhood."
The Walter Pierce garden was not the oldest or the largest in the city. It certainly wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing, what with its scrap lumber and ad-hoc fences that even supporters likened to a squatters camp. What made the Walter Pierce garden so special was that it was literally common ground to all kinds of people from all kinds of places. All that mattered was that they shared the joy of working the soil.
The garden was started 20 years ago, in part, by recent Central American immigrants who depended on its bounty to feed their families or to provide fresh vegetables. Many who gardened there as late as last year did so as much to supplement their pantry as for pleasure. "On their own, they have managed to carve out land and a garden with very little in the way of financial resources. I think of them as real urban adventurers," Tiger said.
Parts of the garden, especially a steep slope that bled into Rock Creek Park, resembled a hillside in Central America, with gardeners expertly using fencing, scraps of wood and metal and the land's contours to draw nutrients out of the soil.
The garden at Walter Pierce was compelling enough to be featured in a series on National Public Radio called "A Walk in the Park."
In one program, which aired in 2003, NPR contributor Katie Davis chronicled the culture of the garden through Don Victor Zebina, the quirky strongman of the Walter Pierce garden who divvied up plots according to a system that only he knew.
Zebina did not return phone calls to discuss the garden's closure.
Davis said the garden, like the neighborhood, had a certain cantankerousness about it. If you dug in the wrong place you might later find your freshly planted plants ripped out. There were fights over plantings, fences and personalities.
"Unlike the other gardens that are so Washington in some ways, with their listservs and waiting lists, this garden had its own way of doing things and its own pace," said Mindy Moretti, president of Friends of Walter C. Pierce Community Park. "It was not part of the conformity we're victims of here."
"There weren't garden meetings and nobody had to pay dues," Ponce-Barger said. Zebina "just knew what was available and who was gardening."
To many, the garden was real, and realness contains a sort of beauty in itself, no matter how rough.
"It was a mosaic of ingenuity and color," Davis said in an interview. "There was some raggedy old wire fence, and someone hung a green door in the middle surrounded with morning glories."
The city parks department said the garden had to be closed as part of an erosion prevention project. Walter Pierce Park sits on a steep slope that leads down from Adams Mill Road NW to Rock Creek and the site of John Quincy Adams's former brick mill.
Park officials are concerned about the stability of a gabion wall -- made of rocks and stone kept together by wire mesh -- that supports the rear of the park, keeping the park's soccer field, basketball court and dog park level. The community garden sits on the original slope and extends to land underneath the wall. For construction vehicles, the only access to the wall is through the former garden plots.
"We're going to address the erosion issue," said acting parks director Kimberley Flowers. "Right now the integrity of that whole space is failing."
After the project is finished, Flowers said, "it's possible that the garden can be at that same location that it is at now."
If not, Flowers said, the department would look for another area in the park or elsewhere in the neighborhood to put a garden.
"We are proponents of and encourage community gardening, and we want that to continue," she said.
Moretti agrees that the erosion problems need to be addressed. But she said a parks department drainage project two years ago made the problem worse.
"If it doesn't get fixed, in five years half the park could be down the hill and into the zoo," she said.
Before work can start, the department must survey the site for historical preservation and archeological purposes. The park was once the site of an African American cemetery.
The historical effort has delayed the erosion project. In the spring, gardeners were told to remove everything in anticipation of construction. But no erosion work has been done at all this summer.
Moretti said she doesn't expect the garden to reopen next year, either.
The garden area is now marked with "closed" signs in Spanish and English and some tattered yellow police tape. It is overgrown with vines and weeds that cover the narrow access paths. The only indication of its former use is the occasional whiff of peppermint and a shovel left leaning against a fence.
Some gardeners said they were not surprised that the garden was closed, viewing it as part of the city's overall gentrification.
Davis said there was a feeling among the immigrant gardeners that "it was going to come. They have seen the shift in the neighborhood, the park and in the garden. It doesn't surprise them that someone now says they can't garden there anymore."
Now everyone is waiting for the city's plan for the park and garden.
"There's a concern in the back of the head that it is a bureaucratic process," Tiger said. "God knows what design they will come up with."
In the garden gossip chain, Walter Pierce gardeners keep track of where others have landed.
"Lalo went and found another plot. The Albanian man now gardens in Virginia," Davis said.
Moretti secured a plot in another community garden, at 15th and S streets NW.
And Bobbi Ponce-Barger has taken to gardening around her apartment building, trying to lure birds and bees to her corner of the world.
Ponce-Barger fears the seeds that made the garden so special have been lost to the wind.
"I think people are expecting when and if the garden comes online, it will look a whole lot different," she said. "Some city planner or landscape planner will divide the plots and put fencing up. There will be a lottery for spots. It will be like a lot of the other neighborhood gardens in the area: regimented.''