Community Garden, or Gardening Community?

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Rachael Brown


Summer has hit D.C. like a blast from a furnace. Even in the early mornings, before the sun is fully up, we break a sweat simply by filling a watering pail. Our garden, however, is thriving.

Almost a month has passed since our last update, so here's where things stand. We've been harvesting more leafy chard and beets than we can eat, and our tomato plants are growing heavy with green orbs. (A fellow gardener suggested that spraying the tomato leaves with cayenne pepper mixed with water will keep away the bugs that have been nibbling.) I get a thrill from plucking dozens of long, fuzzy, green beans from their stems. The herbs are still coming along—Bryan used our fresh dill to make cheddar-dill scones last weekend—and even the carrots that we transplanted when we thinned out the rows are looking healthy and thick. The pepper plants are flowering, but no peppers yet. And the salad greens we planted from seed about four weeks ago have sprouted small, tender leaves. As always, we have a lot of weeding to do.

Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about the relationships we've built through the garden, and the garden's place in our larger community. In the few months we've been working at Twin Oaks, our fellow gardeners have loaned us their motorized tiller, and shared straw for mulching. Just this week we were given four spare okra plants. It's common for people to leave extra produce or seeds on a communal table for the taking. In turn, we've shared some of our bounty with friends who have helped us weed and water, and pitched in to build a trellis or refill rain barrels. There are also a number of workshops for people who want them, on topics like composting, or the workings of the garden's new beehive.

But despite the friendly group within Twin Oaks, it can still feel a little cut off from the area immediately surrounding it. Yes, all of the gardeners live nearby, but our demographics aren't representative of the largely black and Latino neighborhood as a whole. Even though the almost 50-year-old garden is on public land, both the north and south lots are kept locked to protect the tools and equipment onsite. There's no signage displaying the garden's mission or website, or how one can get involved. It's not uncommon for passers-by to stare, or shout through the fence as we work, wondering what we're doing. Some ask if there is any room for them to garden too. Unfortunately, right now, there isn't.

Of course, most people are happy to let anyone who's curious walk around, or answer questions. Neighboring residents contribute to, and use, the compost pile, even though they are not garden members. And a few plots within Twin Oaks are dedicated to growing vegetables to donate to city nonprofits, and one is set aside for a partnership with nearby Powell Elementary School. But the majority of the gardeners, including us, are growing mostly for themselves.

Within the District, there are a number of options for people who want to garden, even if they don't wrangle hard-to-get space in a community lot, but they're not always well-known. For example, Sharing Backyards D.C. matches people who don't have access to land with people willing to loan space in their yards. The challenge, it seems, is effectively promoting these programs so that even more people can participate, whether it's for recreation or subsistence.

It's also a matter of priorities. Earlier this month, food channel contributor Azby Brown highlighted the community garden model in Japan, in which dense urban developments are planned around existing growing lots, some of which are centuries old. "Their farming is something deep and rich," he writes, "an anchor to the land, and a means of reinforcing social bonds." Meanwhile, here in D.C. a resident-built community garden on Capitol Hill was recently threatened with destruction to make way for a new Marines barracks.

None of this is to suggest that urban gardening, especially on an individual scale, is an easy answer to problems like food deserts, diabetes, or obesity. Gardening can be hard, and time-consuming. We've saved money on produce this summer and had plenty of fresh, healthy food to eat, but it wouldn't be as practical for us if we had young children, or worked irregular hours, or held multiple jobs. Yet gardening creates value. As Bryan and I have learned, there is immense satisfaction in growing one's own food, and benefits in the relationships that are built in the process. Going forward, I hope we'll see greater awareness of and access to gardening opportunities for D.C. residents—in other words, an effort to put the community back in community gardening.

Past gardening posts by Rachael Brown:
Summer Harvest: Are We There Yet?
Good Things Come to Those Who Garden
Seeds Into Shoots
In the Garden: Out with the Old, In with the New
Call Me 'Gardener'

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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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