Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The green thumbs who transformed a neglected patch of D.C. dirt into a sunflower-smattered community garden weren’t about to stand down against the U.S. military. “They were thinking of moving Marine barracks over here,” says Hal Seitz. Better known as “Hal the Gardener,” he’s tended a plot at the Virginia Avenue Community Garden since even before its official creation in 2004. “We fought them and we’re still here. That’s the nice thing about having Capitol Hill people in your garden. They’re lawyers and they know the lingo.”

In 2010, the U.S. Marine Corps were considering the 4-acre site where the garden sits as a place to build additional living quarters. Gardeners and fans of the park located at 901 Virginia Ave. SE rallied and fought back. They collected 5,000 signatures to “Save The Virginia Avenue Park,” got buy-in from Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and drew up the argument that Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plans for the city designated the land parcel as open space.

Hal the Gardener, Virginia Avenue Community Garden. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Then-Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells couldn’t believe the gardeners persevered. “I was telling them, you’re not going to beat the Department of Defense,” he recalls. “That’s why I was so convinced there had to be a Plan B, but every time they said, ‘There is no Plan B!’ It taught me a lesson … A small group of people can either prevent or make big changes. I was proud of them.”

Today the Virginia Avenue Community Garden is made up of about 80 individual plots and a small shared orchard. Neat rows of Swiss chard and collard greens dominate Seitz’s piece of paradise. “If you plant a lot of leafy greens, you can eat from the garden every day,” he advises. The Salad Days T-shirt he wears depicts the name of a 2014 documentary he’s featured in about D.C.’s punk scene. Not one leaf has a blemish or a bug bite. “It’s totally worth the $75 every year. I grow thousands of dollars of vegetables just on the greens alone.”

There are close to 80 community gardens like this one spread across all eight wards of the city, with the most concentrated in Wards 5 and 6. Some, like the Glover Park Community Garden, started as victory gardens to address food shortages during World War II and nod at their history today by mandating that gardeners grow only vegetables and herbs. Others are new, like the Marvin Gaye Community Garden which opened in 2018.

Marvin Gaye is one of 35 community gardens which sit on Department of Parks and Recreation property. Additional gardens grace National Park Service land and an array of other places such as churches, arts venues, and retirement centers where they’re largely operated by nonprofit organizations. DPR gardens get city assistance with access to water, infrastructure support, and help with conflict mediation, according to DPR Director Delano Hunter.

Most community gardens accept applications for individual plots through their websites or via email. Interviews with 20 community gardeners reveal that annual dues for individual plots range from $0 to $75. DPR officially sets its limit at $30. There are, of course, further costs to maintaining a plot, such as purchasing seeds and tools, though some gardens have shared tool sheds.

Demand far outpaces supply for these individual plots. Most garden managers quote waiting times of two or three years. But finding land and funding for more gardens to double or triple the number of individual plots may not be the panacea to make D.C.’s community gardens a boon for the maximum amount of Washingtonians. Some of the city’s gardeners see other ways to put the “community” in community gardens that already exist, and ensure these glorious green spaces are for the many, not the few.

Madeleine McCann, age 4. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Largely, community gardens provide D.C.’s apartment-dwelling worker bees, young families, and retirees with a place to escape and swap screen time for the more wholesome hobby of growing food for supper. They’re places where today’s culture of immediate gratification won in retweets and likes gives way to a slower tempo of trial and error where you wait to see if you can grow a watermelon worthy of a picnic or braid garlic into garlands.

Those with children look for teachable moments. “It’s fun for her to know how a tomato grows,” says Adrienne McCann, the garden manager at Virginia Avenue Community Garden. She has a 4-year-old daughter capable of weeding and rolling up the hose after watering. “We had to plant this. It doesn’t just come from the store.”

Ryan May secured a plot at the Langdon Youth & Community Garden in Ward 5 for the same reason. “The goal was to teach my kids how to garden and not be afraid to get dirty,” he says. “It’s a better way to entertain them than an iPad. It shows the kids how food is produced and not to take it for granted.” His 3-year-old daughter has a garden kit with a bucket and trowel. “This is something I hope will last 15 to 20 years,” May continues. Every spring they plan what to grow as a family.  

For Lucretia Jones, the most rewarding part of community gardening is “seeing other people with their hands in the dirt.” She gardens at the Upshur Community Garden in Ward 4. “Especially in this environment, it has the power to change so much.”

Jones is with Herbalists Without Borders, a nonprofit network of gardeners who grow medicinal plants such as Saint-John’s-wort, mugwort, lemon balm, mint, and lavender. She’s experimenting with white sage and may move it from her home to the garden. “There’s controversy about it being over-harvested,” she explains, suggesting that “cleansing” spaces by burning sage has become so popular that bundles of the herb are now sold at Five Below. What Jones grows at Upshur is up for grabs by her fellow gardeners.

There are signs of fellowship among gardeners in many gardens, including at one of the largest and most established community gardens—Newark Street Community Garden—which opened in 1975 in Ward 3. Eavesdrop as you traverse neat rows of plots lush with corn, squash, and tomatoes and you’ll learn that mason jars of homemade pesto are currency exchanged for help watering during summer vacations.

With 220 plots there’s significant turnover at Newark Street. Garden president Maureen Spagnolo estimates that there are 40 new gardeners each year. She brings in a master gardener from Virginia, Larry Rice, who offers seminars such as how to “put your garden to bed” in the fall. “A few of our other gardeners go around to people’s plots if they’ve got questions,” Spagnolo says. “There’s lots of camaraderie there.”

Virginia Avenue Community Garden. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

But with any shared space inevitably comes conflict. Most plays out in breathless group email chains. At the Bruce Monroe Community Garden in Ward 1, for example, there was a dust up in July after a gardener named Mohammad wrote an email to his fellow gardeners where he singled out a garden-mate for getting too “angry, upset, or emotional” about theft in the garden even though he himself described “thieves” as “mainly low-income undocumented immigrants” who “got angry and threw rocks at him.”

(Theft is a somewhat common occurrence in community gardens. Gardeners report camouflaging watermelons in paper bags and growing cherry tomatoes instead of sought-after heirlooms.)

Some on the email chain asked Mohammad to apologize and classified his emails as disrespectful, disheartening, and belittling. One more dramatically said he was leaving the garden. “I’m very much hoping to see the aggressive emails stop and more of an actual community garden forum take their place,” a gardener named Sara wrote to the group. “Perhaps the community garden leaders could step in to see to this…” Neither Mohammad nor Sara would answer City Paper’s requests for comment.

“It’s amazing how much drama comes from community gardens,” says DPR Community Garden Specialist Josh Singer. He’s held the position for six years and has been a community garden evangelist in D.C. even longer. “They’re great practice for people to learn how to be in a community, get along, and problem solve. We help train people in mediation—especially garden managers. Some of them deal with tough situations.”

Community gardens on DPR land are volunteer cooperatives that must self-govern. “The idea is we help them organize with sample bylaws with the hope that they sustain themselves,” Singer says. The gardens should have a minimum of a garden manager, but some floral fiefdoms have more developed leadership structures like boards of directors and other volunteers who take on everything from ensuring the compost is nutrient rich to facing yellowjacket nests head-on.

Virginia Avenue Community Garden. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

DPR has unofficial materials to guide garden leaders in making and setting rules, but none will be enforceable by the city until there has been a public comment period this fall on the Community Garden Agreement all gardeners will be asked to sign in 2020. Sample suggestions include banning aggressive behavior, non-organic fertilizer, and any structures that block another plot’s sun.

Spagnolo is going into her third year as the president of Newark Street Community Garden, which has seven board members and a host of other volunteer positions. “In many ways we set the standard because we came up with our rules before the city came up with rules,” she says. “Now they’re coming up with rules, which is funny.”

Newark Street gardeners are expected to participate in a monthly work day; skip installing bird baths; plant things that creep, like mint, in containers; and utilize the majority of their plots for cultivation. Some rebels install tables and chairs. “That’s not what it’s supposed to be for,” Spagnolo says. “Generally people get away with this kind of thing. You don’t want to be too draconian after all.”

The most delicate job belongs to the volunteers on the rules committee who serve as plot monitors. These weed warriors make sure gardeners’ plots are at least partially planted by May 1 and are well maintained throughout the growing season in fairness to the 90 would-be gardeners on the waitlist. “Some gardeners can be angry and nasty about it even though the approach is usually a little note saying your plot has more weeds than are acceptable,” Spagnolo says. Gardeners get three warnings before losing their plot.

Felicity Amos says she has held that job. “People were so upset they were given citations,” she says. “I got hate mail.” She describes gardeners who were incredulous despite the fact that they hadn’t planted anything by July. “One summer I had 3,000 emails back and forth. I don’t get paid for this! It’s all volunteer.” She inhales. “Most people are so nice. It’s a very harmonious, idyllic little place.”

Newark Street Community Garden. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

D.C. saw a growth spurt in community gardens kick off under Mayor Vince Gray, according to Singer. Many of the gardens came to fruition through a joint initiative between DPR and the Department of General Services called Play DC that launched in 2012 with the goal of renovating 32 playgrounds and adding eight new ones. Community gardens are frequently nestled next to playgrounds or adjacent to recreation centers.

“We more than doubled the amount of community gardens in five years,” Singer says. “Gray gave us a lot of funding to build.” Just as Mayor Muriel Bowser was taking office in 2015, D.C. was named the city with the most community gardens per capita by the Trust for Public Land.

Today new gardens aren’t popping up as fast and furiously because there’s less targeted funding. DPR now looks to team up with community partners or tack onto large-scale city projects like the total renovation of a rec center. “Now that we have to work with community partners for funding, we’re able to do a lot more community outreach which creates a lot more community engagement with our new gardens,” says Singer.

When neighbors don’t feel like a community garden is for them, the garden can become susceptible to vandalism. “A lot of these community gardens are great for people who get plots, but they become exclusive for everyone else,” Singer says. “With gentrification and marginalization, it can become divisive in these communities.”

When Powell Elementary School expanded in 2015, the northern part of the Twin Oaks Community Garden was Joni-Mitchelled—they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. The city mollified the gardeners by building the Upshur Community Garden less than a quarter mile away inside Upshur Park in 2016. Jones was one of the gardeners who migrated.

Upshur Community Garden on Sunday Aug. 18 (photo by Laura Hayes). Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“The garden got put in without anyone’s input in the neighborhood as far as I can tell,” she says, despite that Hunter says DPR doesn’t move forward with a garden unless it meets the needs of the community and all community concerns have been addressed. “There was already an established culture there and all of a sudden there’s a garden with a gate on it … There’s a lot of emotions that go along with that. We had a thing where people were jumping over the fence.”

Current garden manager Sarah Joy Albrecht says there was initial outreach to two neighboring senior centers and two schools, but doesn’t dispute that vandalism has been an issue. “The first year we got there, teenagers would hop the fence and hang out in the greenhouse, which is at this point totally trashed,” she says. “The next year they would hang out in the garden. I mean, here we are with this new fancy place.”

Albrecht says there was a lot of back and forth on the topic on the listserv. “Some were bothered by [the kids and teens] being in the garden and smoking,” she says. “The issue of dialing the police on them came up. Several gardeners spoke out against that. And then that ended up fading away.”

One of the chief issues is that Upshur Park doesn’t have working water fountains. Younger kids were breaking in to access water and play with the hoses, according to Albrecht. On an Aug. 18 visit, the gray water fountain by the baseball field was broken; the green water fountain by the playground was broken; and the blue water fountain by the basketball court eked out a trickle.

The same condition exists at Lansburgh Park where the SW Community Garden is located in Ward 6. Gardeners there say they have been asking the city to install water fountains since 2014. The park has basketball courts and a dog park. Only the dog park has water.

“There’s no silver bullet on vandalism,” Singer says. “There are things you can do to reduce it. Community involvement is big. We had a garden at Fort Greble where they experienced a lot of vandalism. Kids didn’t have a lot to do. They involved them and gave them a plot. They instantly saw the vandalism go down. It’s about finding ways to include people who at times feel excluded. It’s part of a larger trend of exclusion.”

Albrecht wishes there was more manpower to encourage community involvement at the garden. “I’m at capacity, but it’s something I’d love to do,” she says. “I agree these could be beautiful, engaged, interactive community spaces.”

Virginia Avenue Community Garden. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A stereotype of community gardens is that they exist to solely benefit those who are socioeconomically situated to have the time and money to tend to a plot if they’re lucky enough to make it off a waitlist. Keeping a garden well maintained can take several visits per week. While some gardens give preference to those who live within a certain distance or offer discounts to low-income residents, most only require that plot holders live in D.C. If community gardens should reflect the make-up of the communities they’re in, there will always be opportunities to bolster inclusivity and diversity.

To start, gardens could conduct steadier, more thoughtful outreach about how to get involved. “It really is important for people to know that this is free, this is yours, this is a part of your community and you can be just as involved as anyone else here,” says Sharri Fultz. She manages the “Urban Roots” Benning Community Garden in Ward 7, which sat dormant until about two months ago. Soilful City founder Xavier Brown was looking for help reviving it and Fultz answered the call.

Fultz describes the group of six women currently growing everything from Scotch bonnet peppers to sunflowers as a sisterhood, but wants to see neighbors claim the six plots that are up for grabs at no cost.

“This is not just planting seeds,” she says. “We’re trying to sow the seeds of change—economic change, social change. This is something African Americans need to reach back and get ourselves more involved in to help make change not only socially but health-wise. Organic is expensive in the store. Get out here and grow your own. Be your own medicine man.”

“Gardening not only produces food that’s healthy for the body but it’s physical activity,” says Dr. Phronie Jackson, echoing Fultz’s sentiment. “How you move your body matters.” Jackson has a doctorate degree in public health. She is the founder of the Ward 5 Health Coalition and gardens at the Langdon Youth & Community Garden.

Jackson says there can be some real barriers to getting involved in community gardening if you don’t know who to contact. Information about community gardens is primarily posted on government websites or niche online resources like DUG Network, which Singer helps run. The latter offers a comprehensive list of D.C.’s community gardens, educational materials, and volunteer opportunities.

“I think part of the problem is how do we let folks know that these gardens are available?” Jackson asks. “We have to make this information available through different resources.” She recommends conducting outreach at churches, senior centers, community meetings, Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings, and AARP functions. “You cannot wait for people to find you.”

A second strategy for increasing community participation at D.C.’s community gardens is through better utilization of public plots where anyone can share in maintaining the garden and harvesting vegetables. Many community gardens on DPR land have such areas, and a “Community Inclusion Plan” could become a requirement in 2020. Some gardens, like the SW Community Garden, already prioritize nurturing activity in public plots.

Coy and Pam McKinney, SW Community Garden. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

During dedicated work times on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons, married gardeners Coy and Pam McKinney open up the garden hoping residents of the Greenleaf Gardens public housing complex across the street will come over and take part in growing corn, Swiss chard, snap peas, sweet potatoes, peppers, and peanuts in the community plots.

The Housing Authority named Greenleaf as one of its properties most in need of repair, especially as a quarter of people who live there are children. City Paper previously reported that a 10-year-old tenant was hospitalized in 2018 after suffering respiratory failure. A medical team at  Children’s National Medical Center attributed her illness to the extensive mold in her family’s apartment. Attorneys with both Howard University Law School’s Fair Housing Clinic and the Legal Aid Society say their Greenleaf clients experience leaking sewage and insect infestations.

“When we first started my push was, I don’t want this to be a garden in a community, I want it to be an actual community garden,” Coy says. He oversees the public plot work days and teaches urban agriculture at Friendship Technology Preparatory High. “When it’s just individual plot owners, then you get 30 people who have access and that’s it. That closes the door to everyone else. To be an actual community garden we have to open the doors and let everybody come in.”

Participation was low on a recent Sunday, but Pam says when school’s in session they typically get 10 to 20 people on work days. On this visit, Blaire Johnson, 11, and Jarmal Pannell, 14, were busy watering. They’re friends and neighbors who live in Greenleaf. Johnson says she comes almost every week and brings cucumbers, sweet peas, and peanuts home to her family. “I saw them across the street and came over,” she says. Pannell also visits frequently, though he jokes that the garden should be a splash park with a 10-foot water slide instead. Coy and Pam set out a station where they can quickly pickle cucumbers in salt and vinegar.

“I like seeing the kids come over and interact with each other,” says Caroline Waddell Koehler, who gardens in the communal plots. “Sometimes they’re bad, and I mean that in a loving way. Sometimes they get kicked out of the garden, but they’re always contrite because they want to come back in.”

Coy also hopes the garden is a place where adults can talk openly and notes that four of the 32 individual plots are reserved for public housing residents. “We don’t want to shove it down people’s throats, but these are opportunities to talk about what’s happening at Greenleaf, opportunities to talk to your neighbors about gentrification and affordability issues. People think they come here to weed, but if you weed together then that time can lead to conversations where you learn about your neighborhood.”

Since not every community garden has volunteers who are as dialed-in as the McKinneys, partnering with nonprofit organizations, schools, or even local businesses is a third way gardens can increase overall participation beyond what individual plot holders are privy to.

The Langdon Youth & Community Garden, for example, is on DPR land but has buy-in from a local grocer and at least two nonprofit organizations—Rooftop Roots and The Green Scheme. Together they manage the public plots and associated educational programming. “Community gardens are an essential part of the food system of the future and a great place here and now to meet people you otherwise wouldn’t,” says Good Food Markets co-owner Philip Sambol.

Good Food Markets not only provides seeds for the various herbs, flowers, and vegetables that grow in the beds, but Sambol also worked with DC SNAP-Ed to develop lessons for students at two nearby elementary schools and YMCA-Calomiris. More than 200 students have participated since the program’s inception. “It covers basic food systems, nutrition, and environmental science,” Sambol says. “We do a tour of the market and then go to the community garden and pull something out of the ground and talk about plant parts and composting.”

For Ronnie Webb, the co-founder of The Green Scheme, getting involved in the Langdon Youth & Community Garden was particularly meaningful. “I was born and raised in that neighborhood,” Webb explains. His grandfather still has a house there. “There’s a lot of street things, violence in the community with neighborhoods beefing, but it’s also going through big gentrification.”

When Singer called Webb to see if he would be interested in getting a community garden off the ground, it was an easy “yes.” His organization’s chief goal is to teach kids how to care for gardens and grow food through curriculum developed with American University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In this case, The Green Scheme partners with the Langdon Park Community Center. “We go and get the kids for after school programming so they can help maintain the garden, grow the food, and give it out to seniors in the community,” Webb says. He’s noticed that the neighbors that gather in the garden are a mix of new residents and seniors who have lived there for five decades.

“Gardens take the tension off,” Webb continues. “But you have to make sure the gardens are a customized fit for that community. We get the pulse and tone of the communities we go into so nobody feels like they’re left out. Everyone feels like they have a handprint on the garden.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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