Farming the inner-city soil

BEHIND the rows of trendy restaurants in Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood, city gardeners are scraping the parched soil, planting their pepper patches, and speaking an urban pastiche of accents and languages. The garden around them is one of over 12,000 community gardens planted in the vacant lots of cities from Baltimore to Los Angeles. These urban gardeners are part of a tiny but growing branch of the country's agricultural infrastructure, as indicated by a Gardens For All/Gallup Poll survey and statistics from the National Gardening Association and the US Department of Agriculture.

By sharing vacant city lots, urban farmers have found a way to nurture almost 100,000 acres of community gardens in cities throughout the United States. Members of more than 1 million households are planting extra squash, cutting off bunches of parsley to trade for extra ripe melons, and learning how to grow the best salad in the best soil with just the right amount of water.

Beyond a tremendous community spirit engendered by garden projects -- reminiscent of the Victory Garden spirit, engendered during the World War II effort to save money and support the soldiers overseas -- growing vegetables in the city is important to these people, because it literally keeps food on the table.

In the 21 City Gardening Projects supported by the USDA, gardeners saved $14,550,000 by growing their own produce in 1981. Translated to piggy-bank proportions, that's $83 worth of produce for each gardener.

It's a piece of change urban gardeners must defend, however, as their land comes up against the constant pressure of real-estate costs.

``Our land is threatened in a terrible way,'' says Tom Fox, one of the Adams Morgan garden founders, who now helps run New York City's Neighborhood Open Space Coalition. That organization recently helped a group of 120 families struggle to keep the land they had planted; after five years, a $10 million development project won out and the gardens were displaced.

Approximately one-third of the community gardens in the US belong to cities; their land is available to anyone who contacts the local gardening association. People like those from the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) and Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG), Operation Green Thumb in New York, and the P-Patch Program in Seattle then connect them with an appropriate plot of land -- or put them on a waiting list.

The residents of Adams Morgan -- a neighborhood that has a dozen Ethiopian restaurants, Spanish newsstands, and an Afghani import store -- started growing vegetables together five years ago on a piece of land that sloped precariously into Rock Creek Park, just across from the backside of the National Zoo.

The garden site was ``a dump,'' as one gardener describes it, before 1977, when residents petitioned the city government to transform it into a basketball court for their children. With help from the Institute for Local Self Reliance, they made the city comply and the space was christened Community Park West. Later, an EPA grant transformed part of it into a garden, divided into small individual plots.

Problems peculiar to an urban environment pop up here as often as belligerent weeds, making the growing twice as tough. Vandalism, for instance, is listed by the NGA as the No. 2 problem in community gardens, after maintenance.

``This is an outdoor Safeway when it gets going,'' explains one 10-year veteran of shared city gardening, talking about theft. A lanky man nearby grins covertly and says that, just to be extra safe, he plants his watermelons way down the slope where no one will find them.

Many city gardens also lack the spigots and sprinklers that backyard gardeners find indispensable. The Adams Morgan garden lost its water supply when the fountain in the park it borders was vandalized, and gardeners have tried for two years to get the D.C. Department of Recreation to fix the water line. Meanwhile, plants are watered from oversized trash cans that must be filled with a length of hose reaching two lots over to a group of condominiums.

Beyond having patience and community spirit, gardeners sometimes need to pay a nominal fee for shared land. Garden Resources of Washington (GROW), in the nation's capital, pays a token $1 a year for the gardens it manages. Chairman of the Board Joe Weeks explains that an individual leasing to gardeners ``gets his lot cleared up'' and, he continues, ``gets a sense of his land being utilized in a positive way.''

The Open Space Coalition, representative of 113 organizations (including 20 community gardens), is funded``by hook or by crook,'' says Fox, ``beg, borrow or steal.'' Grants like the Federal Block Grant received by Seattle's P-Patch Program (in 1972) to develop two garden sites for low-income Indochinese refugee families, or the Community Development Block Grant used by Evanston, Illinois' Environmental Association to restore and expand a group of gardens along a canal, are difficult to obtain but remain an important possibility for community gardens.

Farmers' markets can help raise funds, and BUG's quarterly newsletter earns $4,000 a year in ad revenues. Private and corporate donations also provide integral support: in Hartford, Conn., the Cignon Insurance Corporation helped develop a garden program for schoolchildren.

With many children trying to grow green thumbs, education has become another highly ranked objective on most community garden lists.

In Philadelphia's historic Germantown, 300 elementary-school children are comparing hydroponics to conventional indoor gardening. Others grow a market garden and learn about vegetable gardening and sales.

On the West Coast, a guide to gardening with children, put out by Common Ground, a gardening organization in Los Angeles, has spurred the development of countless demonstration gardens in Los Angeles County schools.

In 1981, during the child-murder crisis in Atlanta, community gardening projects became a part of ``Safe Summer 1981'' and kept at least 600 children digging Atlanta's soil within the safety bounds of police-protected areas.

Community gardens are no new solution to urban problems, Victory Gardens being a perfect case in point. One of the largest, the Fenway in Boston, began six months after the bomb was dropped on Pearl Harbor.

The five-acre garden has been growing ever since, despite attempts to develop the site into a hospital, a school, and a parking lot.

Mrs. Sarah Bell in Washington produces a bountiful harvest in her victory garden, and she remembers the 20 plots that began to grow here in the early '40s. Her own plot is one of the biggest, perhaps because she's been there for so long, and it includes a tasting parlor where gardeners might sample the tomatoes she promises will grace her vines. She gardens for the taste of those juicy red tomatoes, nothing like the ``rubbery, tasteless'' ones she says she is forced to buy in the early spring, before her plants bear fruit.

For the victory of their own harvests, even urbanites will continue to grow their own.

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