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- Date: Sat, 29 Jun 2002 09:54:32 -0400 (EDT)
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The Plot Ripens, an article from the Washington Post.
To view the entire article, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A64142-2002Jun28.html
The Plot Ripens
By Ann Gerhart
After work, with the midsummer dusk still hours away, Agustin Cruz carries his aluminum lawn chair out of the steaming brick box of his Brightwood apartment building.
He crosses the street, steps past the case of Corona empties and the junked car battery, and sets that fraying chair down next to the lush bounty of the Fort Stevens community garden.
Cruz holds a tortilla in one hand and a sheaf of practice test questions in the other. He is an electrician from El Salvador preparing for his U.S. citizenship. This is where he likes to study. Not far away, his garden grows: carrots, pinto beans.
Just behind him, red corn from Ecuador sways in the breeze. Sweet potatoes from Georgia, callaloo from Jamaica, squash from Nigeria, heirloom tomatoes and peppers and string beans, lemon balm and curry, marigolds and nuclear purple balls of leek gone to seed all push up through the soil. The air is fragrant. The catbirds sing. The impatient horns of evening rush hour on nearby Georgia Avenue don't even carry here.
Cruz's 6-year-old son, Agustin, darts about. "I have carrots!" he says. He and his sister, Ruby, helped their grandmother plant them. Carrots are age-old sustenance. Their feathery tops look delicate next to the sturdy symmetry of the family's dozens of bushy pinto bean vines.
There are community gardens all over the city. There are 50 garden plots in this particular swatch of shared National Park Service land on 13th Street NW and Fort Stevens Drive. All it takes to get one here is $10 rent a year and a person's word to weed and mulch and harvest and be a good garden neighbor. Bargain, friendship and food, all at once. And a place to prepare for citizenship. There's a waiting list.
The gardeners are not mere hobbyists; they are urban farmers feeding families and tending traditions. At Fort Stevens they are American blacks retired from teaching and the military and the federal government, some of them working the soil for 16 seasons now, and a few white folks. There are immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Jamaica, El Salvador and Mexico.
"And Eddie? Is he from the Middle East?" Johannes Metz asks of head gardener Corinia Prince as they push hair off their damp foreheads, shade their eyes and survey the 20-foot-square plots. Metz, who is so devoted to the garden that he frequently tills other people's soil, is from the Netherlands. But when he is asked his country of origin, he says, "the same planet as you."
Metz has grown fond of purslane, the succulent and peppery creeper used for salads. It has spread all over the Fort Stevens gardens. A plant like this is called a "volunteer." Its seeds drift in on the wind, or burst from last season's overlooked and overripe fruit. If it doesn't get torn out for its impertinence, and it's treated as the insistence of nature that it is, the volunteer is greeted with delight. And that is how human relations grow at community gardens, without design or strategy or too much introspection. It doesn't take sociologists and city planners to make a garden work.
"We come to know each other," says Vivian Clark, who lives in Dupont Circle and has gardened at Fort Stevens since the early '80s. "We learn from each other. You look around. One year somebody plants something, and it comes along, and the next year, four other people are growing the same thing."
"Take the stuff [you read] from books, the stuff from Africa, the stuff from Caribbean, the stuff from the Spanish," says Metz, "and everything gets combined. And everything is good."
And sure enough, here is Kari Traure, who demurs that she is better speaking in French, because that is what she grew up with in West Africa. At dusk, she is slowly walking the bark mulch paths, scrutinizing her neighbors' plots, learning to do what they do, acclimating, and her mind's notes come in a universal language of food that bridges many a gap.
The community garden in the hot, struggling city is a metaphor for so much -- the unity of humanity, the good earth, the virtue of toil and so much that is otherwise lacking in the concrete jungle. But the tillers of this soil are not terribly interested in metaphor.
They like to grow things. Then they like to eat what they grow. They don't analyze it much.
New Victory Gardens
Cultivating the soil to produce food was not instinctive. Early man was restless. He hunted and foraged, killed and ate, grazed and moved on. The beginning of agrarian culture was the beginning of an organized society. People learned to stay put and cooperate toward a shared goal -- survival. They heeded the cycle of the stars, the sun and the rains. They gained memory, season to season. They kept records. They fought wars over their cities and food. Over time, the ruling classes found a little leisure in the day.
By its very nature, growing food is civilizing. It imposes an order and rhythm. Here, it unifies a stratified city. It seeds the pride of self-sufficiency.
Urban gardening in and around Washington is not used as aggressively for community-building and neighborhood beautification as it is in other cities.
In New York, community gardens are so fiercely guarded that when former mayor Rudy Giuliani moved to sell 115 of them, the howls hit the front pages of the tabloids. Bette Midler's nonprofit bought the lot of them for $4.2 million.
In Philadelphia, for some 25 years, the model program Philadelphia Green has helped residents in struggling neighborhoods reclaim abandoned lots and provoked City Hall to tear down condemned buildings and tow rusted cars. Then the folks turn the space into vest-pocket parks and gardens exploding with color and fresh produce.
In the District, where most of the 1,200 plots across some 30 gardens are on Park Service or city-owned space, such neighborhood revitalization happens only occasionally. But when it does, the green space is a new variety of victory garden.
In Petworth, Lutheran Social Services reclaimed a lot near its Georgia Avenue headquarters and established a garden for its mental health clients. "We have a crack house in the neighborhood, and that lot used to be the party place at night," says LeeAnn Schray, a pastor who runs the agency's gardening programs. "But since we have put the garden in, there's not as many condoms and nickel bags as we used to see. The dealers know we are around."
Like the volunteer plant, a spontaneous social program sprouted: The kids who live on the block come work the dirt. "They think it's fun, and so they hang around," says Schray.
There is comfort in this camaraderie, just as there is comfort in the inevitability of fruit following blossom, especially this year.
"I like to use pretty little ties to stake the tomatoes," says Corinia Prince at Fort Stevens. "This year, I got these red, white and blue ones, with stars. You know, because of the attacks."
She is a retired widow of 63 raising her two grandsons, 11 and 17, since her son died some years back. She had her first child at age 16 -- "And I have no regrets about that, it was wonderful," she says firmly -- but hers is still a life that has seen its troubles. "I come up here at 8 in the morning and get lost doing things and I look up and it's 2 in the afternoon," she says. "This is my therapy. Imogene is the one who got me involved."
"Imogene is the one who introduced me to callaloo," says Vivian Clark, referring to the Caribbean vine used to stretch rice and soup or served up as wilted greens with onions and herbs. "Imogene is quite the cook."
Imogene Freeburn is a secretary raised on a farm in Jamaica, and when she moved to Crittenden Street in Brightwood years ago, she was so hungry for growing "would you believe I had string beans in the window box?" She is Prince's neighbor on the street, and the tempting smells from her kitchen and the fresh vegetables she proffered finally compelled Prince to get her own garden plot three years ago.
Freeburn's plot at Fort Stevens erupts with tomatoes and peppers and beans and callaloo grown from seeds hand-carried from Jamaica. There is pungent yellow curry and lemon balm and two kinds of thyme for the jerk sauce, and chives and leeks and mulberries and marigolds to repel insects. There are sweet potatoes and tomatillos, which Freeburn learned about from the Hispanic gardeners and came to love in stir-fries. There are strawberries, tiny and red and sweet, hiding under their leaves, a treasure hunt prize for Freeburn's grandchildren.
In Southeast, at the edge of Capitol Hill, there's an enchanting secret garden in the middle of a block, hidden from view behind the buildings. It's called the Kings Court community garden, and it's between 14th and 15th streets near South Carolina Avenue -- it sits on land where a grand dream for community development and job creation withered on the vine.
An organization called Garden Resources of Washington helped the neighbors take over the deed to the land. "People can all do for themselves, but we can assist people to follow their vision," says Judy Tiger, GROW's executive director. "We help them to see they are gardening for themselves and for something called togetherness. There are expectations and commitments there."
"The first year, we laid out the plots and exhausted ourselves building the fence," which stays locked, says Pat Taylor. She lives nearby and grows three kinds of peas and eggplant and okra and lemongrass at Kings Court. "The second year, we had no water that year at all. People had to carry in their own. The third year, a neighbor allowed us to hook up to his outdoor spigot, and we pay his whole water bill." And now, after six years, "we certainly have a friendship group," says Taylor. "We have a social chairwoman now, and she has scheduled one happy hour and one potluck dinner in the garden every month."
Beauty and Mystery
At Fort Stevens, with salsa music thumping through the unscreened windows of the apartment building, Prince saunters over to have a look at what Earl Randolph has going. They stand there quietly, two farmers taking inventory. She has her gray hair plaited and stuck through the back of her baseball cap, and her thumbs are hooked in the back pockets of her beige coveralls. He is wearing an Augusta National Golf Club bucket hat his wife got him for a quarter at a yard sale. His sweet potato vines are lovely tidy mounds of green, sitting like princesses on their raised rows.
"You want some?" Randolph asks Prince.
"I have sweet potatoes!" she tells him.
"I bet you don't got ones like this," he teases. "These are Georgia reds."
Who's first? Who's best? Who's neatest? This competition is all part of gardening side-by-side, and some years, there's even a formal contest, with blue ribbons for best garden and best crop.
There is gardening just for beauty, which is a different need from nutrition. Vivian Clark grows lemon balm to sprinkle in her bath water, and seven-feet-tall hollyhocks, which bow gracefully over the leek flowers.
There is surprise. As the head gardener in charge of reminding people to tend their plots, Prince once told Clark she needed to do something about her weeds. "And she said, 'Come over here, I got something to show you,' and I bent down and she moved aside the leaves, and she said, 'That's peanuts,' and I was flabbergasted!" says Prince. This year, there's a plot for schoolchildren in a George Washington Carver Outdoor School program, and they are getting the same lesson, "learning that carrots don't come from the store," says Jawara Kasimu-Graham, who directs the environmental program.
Sometimes, there is mystery. Why has the robust red leaf lettuce in a particular plot been left to wilt in the summer heat? Where is the gardener? "He's gone away for a while," Randolph tells Prince when she asks. He is gone away long enough that Randolph and Metz have decided to take over his plot.
Sometimes, there is tension. People in the apartment building come out after dark and drink their beer and toss their trash about. Or red tomatoes that were clinging to the vine one evening have vanished the next morning. "You have to handle some with kid gloves," says Prince, "but mostly, we work it out. We help each other when we're sick."
Robert Adejayan, a lobby attendant at the Watergate Hotel, claws around a plant with a long-handled cultivator. "We call this Nigerian squash," he says, pointing. "When it crawls, we cut off the stem and the leaves and eat it, maybe with a little onion, like the collard greens." He has brought the seeds from Nigeria.
Where the nearby supermarket shelves groan with freeze-dried, reconstituted, powderized substitutes of fresh food, Brightwood's community gardeners speak in a language nearly archaic in this fast-food nation. They put up jars of vegetables, as in "I put up a quart of beets the other day for my daughter," says Randolph, who is 69 and retired from the Army. "I just grow them for her. I don't even like 'em."
They root for abundance. They want more than they can eat in a week. They give the food away. They juice their tomatoes, freeze their beans and diced greens and squash. The Cruz family, like most of the other Hispanic gardeners, grow enough pinto beans that they can eat those beans, shelled and dried, most of the winter.
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