Call Me "Gardener"

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Rachael Brown


A few weeks ago, I came home from work to find my husband at the stove, stirring a fragrant pan of garlic and eggplant, and grinning triumphantly. "We got a plot!" he proudly announced. "Excuse me?" I responded.

Apparently, almost nine months earlier, Bryan had placed our names on the waiting list at Twin Oaks, the community garden a few blocks from our apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. A spot had finally opened up. We were going to garden.

First, a little bit about us—I'm an Atlantic fact checker, and Bryan works in public radio. We've been married about seven months, and have lived in D.C. for almost five years. Neither of us has ever really gardened before, and we have, in fact, killed several basil and thyme plants on our tiny apartment window sill. But we do enjoy cooking. When we first moved to D.C., Bryan worked part-time for Fresh Farm Markets, the organization that runs the Dupont Circle and White House farmers' markets, among others. He got to know a number of area farmers and food activists, which increased our knowledge and interest in local, sustainable farming. Trying to grow our own food was the logical next step.

But I had a few reservations. First, our few forays into window boxes had taught me that amateur gardening can become expensive very quickly. And I worried that the garden would become more of a chore than a hobby. We have a difficult enough time prying ourselves out of bed to go to the gym—were we realistically going to add watering and weeding to our morning routine?

Over dinner that night, we settled on a plan. To offset the initial costs (a $30 garden fee, seeds and starter plants, organic fertilizers, etc.), we'll try to make the garden a significant source of our summer produce. Of course, in order for that to happen, we need things to actually grow. So we decided to arm ourselves with research, talk to other urban gardeners to learn from their successes, and try to pick hardy, productive crops that can survive the hot, humid, D.C. summer. And then we'll pray.

Not surprisingly, we discovered a vast wealth of resources for novice gardeners on the Web. A friend with a thriving vegetable patch (in the summer it looks like Whole Foods exploded in his backyard) pointed us to a handy planting guide from the Virginia Cooperative Extension to help us track the region's growing periods and planting dates. The D.C. Urban Gardeners blog contains a multitude of useful links for metro-area gardeners, even if it unfortunately no longer appears to be regularly updated. I also spent some time reading through the archives of Get Rich Slowly's year-long gardening project, in which a personal finance blogger tracked all of his family's garden work and spending, and found they were able to save hundreds of dollars by growing their own vegetables.

That weekend, we walked over to check out our plot. Twin Oaks was founded in 1965, making it one of D.C.'s oldest community gardens. It includes a north lot and a south lot, divided by a residential street. A brightly painted shed and picnic tables look inviting, if a bit weather-worn, and both lots are fenced in and secured with rusty combination locks of the sort you might find on high school gym lockers.

We had been walking past it for years without knowing exactly who ran it or how to get involved. I found out later from Paul, the current garden board president, that originally Twin Oaks was a children's garden run by the District, but as funding shrunk over the years the space opened up to volunteers from the neighborhood, who have slowly taken over its operation. This year marks the first that the entire garden has been rented out to local residents, and roughly 75 people have signed on to garden in 63 spaces, including 12 larger plots for people who actually know what they are doing and would like extra space. Some volunteers use their plots to grow produce for local nonprofits, like D.C. Central Kitchen and Bread for the City, or run partnerships with nearby elementary schools.

The plot we were assigned is a corner space on the north side of the garden, and is about 11 feet by 14 feet. When we found it, the ground was strewn with hay and the remnants of last year's plants; a few yellowed carrot tops and some floppy clumps of green onions peeked out here and there. Branches and dried leaves covered a healthy growth of weeds. Squirrels chased each other through the undergrowth. Standing next to Bryan, looking at the empty bit of earth in front of us, I began to feel very, very excited.

So here we go. Over the next few months, I'll be posting regular updates on our planning, planting, tending, and (hopefully) harvesting on the Atlantic Food Channel. Along the way, I hope to solicit advice and feedback from the readers here, many of whom probably know a great deal more than Bryan and I do when it comes to making a beet or some peppers remarkably appear from soil. I'll also be looking into the social and cultural role that community gardens can play in urban neighborhoods, particularly ones where most residents don't have access to outdoor space of their own. So please, wish us luck, give us your thoughts, and stay tuned.

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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