Last week, the news broke that a 2.7-acre scrap of land where Irving Street meets Kenyon Street just northwest of Washington Hospital Center would be turned into a community garden/orchard/dog park/farmers market named after Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Prize-winning tree planter of Kenya. And there was much rejoicing among nearby park-starved residents. But who were these green-thumbed reclaimers of forgotten soil? The Facebook group and nascent blog provided no clues.

Turns out it’s a pair of folks who know their plants: Sarah McLaughlin, a manager at the local garden center Old City Green, and Josh Singer, a tree planter with Casey Trees who organized the urban fruit tree program for local schools and community groups. And it began with a question: What’s going on with that big piece of land over there?

“We started as a curiosity about the empty space close to where Josh worked every day at Casey Trees, and my house in Parkview,” McLaughlin writes. “Josh and some co-workers started researching about the space, trying to figure out who it belonged to, and what it could turn into. After lots of visits to offices downtown, we received a public space permit for a park and community garden in early February.”

The ownership thing is complicated. As far as they’ve been able to find out, the land belonged to the Old Soldiers Home directly north, and they gave it to the Washington Hospital Center, which turned it over to the District Department of Transportation for public use. So unlike the guerilla Virginia Avenue Park, which had not much in the way of official sanction at the beginning and has repeatedly been threatened with development, this one’s probably safe.

How many other potentially usable parcels could there be?

More information from McLaughlin after the jump.

The first step of Wangari Gardens is to create a community garden, consisting of individual garden plots where people can grow food and flowers in a raised garden bed, with access to soil, compost, tools, water, and advice from experienced gardeners.  The application process for the community garden portion is underway now, with priority being given to long term residents who live closest to the park. Once this is determined, a committee of the community gardeners will be formed to govern the upkeep and direction of the park.

During initial interest meetings, brainstorming sessions, community input, research, etc., one of the main wishes expressed for other use of the space includes a dog park; this could benefit everyone, because many people in the neighborhood who do not like dogs avoid using the space currently, as there are many unleashed dogs who play there. Having a fenced dog park area can bring safety to the dogs (no danger of traffic), peace of mind to the dog owners, and comfort to non-dog lovers.

Other widely supported ideas include a rain garden in the low point of the space, a wheelchair accessible path through the park, a butterfly/native plant garden, a playground, an outdoor classroom, a fruit tree orchard (Casey Trees has already approved to plant 30 fruit trees, 15 shade trees, and 5 rain garden trees), an edible forest garden, a recreation area, a gathering area, an education garden, and more. Because of the large amount of space, there is room for all of these aspects and more, including much room for expansion of the community garden.

Many people have gotten involved with the project-especially as we have been recently getting the word out, there are lots of emails every day of people applying for plots, offering to volunteer, giving advice, etc. There have been university professors and landscape architects helping with design, carpenters offering to build, herbalists offering to teach workshops, and more. Support has been expressed and partnerships have been made with DC organizations such as Bread for the City, DC Greenworks, Casey Trees, the Children’s Medical Center, The Student Conservation Association, Americorps Public Allies, DC Greenspaces, and more.  Groundwork Anacostia, an amazing environmental justice is graciously acting as a fiscal agent until we obtain our own 501(c)3.

The largest need right now is to obtain funds, supplies, and materials for the construction of the community garden part of the park. We have received lots of donations of mulch, soil, and compost but are still trying to gather rot resistant and chemical free lumber, garden tools, and hoses to prepare for our first volunteer workday, which is on Sunday, March 18th from 11am-5pm. Afterwards, we will be holding a community interest meeting from 5-6:30 pm, for people to get involved in decision making and the creation of the park. Volunteers have been passing out fliers in the Parkview and Pleasant Plains neighborhoods, but there is a need for more outreach in Ward 5 especially.

Please encourage readers to donate to Wangari Gardens through the PayPal link on our website, or by donating supplies listed on the wishlist on the website.  There are no paid employees, so the money goes straight towards the project itself.

A little about us:

Sarah is a manager at the independent and locally owned garden center, OLD CITY green in Ward 1. She is also a school gardener and after school teacher at a DC charter school in Ward 7. She graduated from American University, and credits professors Eve Bratman and Simon Nicholson for fueling her interest in food justice issues, and combining them with her love for environmental studies.

Josh is a former high school teacher, and a current tree planter at Casey Trees in Ward 5.  He organized the urban fruit tree orchard program at Casey Trees which provides DC schools and community projects with free fruit trees.  Josh is currently in the master gardener program, and is passionate about native fruits, especially the delicious pawpaw.