Around the corner from the Freddie Gray mural at North Mount and Presbury streets and across the street from the Gilmor Homes public housing project, rows of vacant houses once stood. Now, dozens of residents of Sandtown-Winchester gather there every Sunday. The vacant houses set for demolition at and around 1618 Presbury St. were torn down so the Tubman House — a neighborhood organization named after Maryland’s iconic abolitionist — can provide free produce to the community from its own garden.

Making the garden

Nearly 15 residents showed up on a recent cloudy Tuesday and left with smiles and bags full of fruits and vegetables — ranging from kale to oranges to cucumbers. They didn’t have to worry about paying for the produce, and they could trust where they were getting it from. After all, most of them had watched it grow.

The Tubman House, which formed in 2016, serves as a resource for the ­Sandtown-Winchester community and its surrounding neighborhoods. Founder Dominique Stevenson started the garden to provide the community with free locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Stevenson was working with men in prison before she started the Tubman House. Most days, they walked around the neighborhood, handing out bagged lunches mostly to children and adults to curb the hunger problem within the area considered a food desert, which is when residents do not have easy access to groceries. Stevenson said most of the men she worked with felt a sense of remorse.

“A lot of them wanted to do something that was redemptive; they felt like they had taken from the community, and they wanted to figure out a way to give back.”

One man in particular, who had grown up in the neighborhood, identified the location across the street from Gilmor Homes. That’s when Eddie Conway, the Tubman House president who also worked at Gilmor, got involved.

Conway used the connections he developed in the area to draw people into leadership roles. He recruited farm manager Ausar-Mesh Amen, who is in charge of maintaining all three gardens along the block.

When residents stop by the farm, Amen is the first person they ask about the produce options for the day. Some even refer to him fondly as “Mr. Farmer.” He comes out seven days a week, sometimes even in the middle of the night, to tend to the garden. He also mentors the youth volunteers and establishes connections with other organizations to bring in revenue.

Creating a system

The garden started with only a few wooden plots, but it grew quickly over time. The Tubman House uses a system of colors. Most of the fruits and vegetables are in green plots, which house the produce that is free for the community to take.

The cash crops grow in red boxes. According to Amen, restaurants such as Ida B’s Table in Baltimore will purchase red-box produce to use in their dishes. Tubman House has most recently been exploring black lots, which would be provided to residents in the community who are looking to grow their own food.

Leading by example

The garden grew from humble beginnings. In Tubman House’s initial phase, the farmers only had room for a few plots. Amen said the process of working with the community to change people’s perceptions of natural produce has been “very slow, but very rewarding.” He stressed the importance of pesticide-free farming and choosing fruits and vegetables that are naturally resilient.

The garden also employs the neighborhood’s youth. Amen works with them individually to teach them how to cultivate and grow their own fruits and vegetables to take home to their families.

Looking to the future

The future of the garden is expansion and increased community engagement. Tubman House recently began raising chickens and collecting their eggs.

For Stevenson, that means eventually turning the Tubman House garden area into a community center that residents can use in different ways. For Amen, that means broadening youth outreach and equipping more young community members with farming and nutrition knowledge. That also includes partnering with more organizations and restaurants around the area that can purchase the crops.

— Baltimore Sun