Columbia's Community Gardeners Share Growing Interest

April 21, 1991|By Jennifer S. Williams | Jennifer S. Williams,Contributing writer

"I do this because I need to dig in the soil," says Gail Barbosa, explaining why she spends weeks each spring toiling over a garden plot two miles from her King's Contrivance home.

Ask other gardeners what draws them to Columbia's three community garden sites and a variety of reasons unfold. Some want truly fresh, vine-ripened produce -- "real" tomatoes top the list.

Others are trying to keep down their grocery bills by growing their own vegetables. A few, including some immigrants from Southeast Asia, are growing exotic vegetables and herbs not available in stores here.

Their visions of the perfect garden vary, but these people have a common bond -- the need for a sunny plot of tillable land. And that's where Columbia Gardeners Inc. comes in.

Columbia Gardeners Inc., a non-profit organization run by volunteers, administers three community garden sites near the villages of Owen Brown, Long Reach, and Clemens Crossing, ranging in size from three to five acres. Each site is a neatly laid-out grid of individual garden plots, available tocounty residents whose gardening plans exceed the capacity of their yard at home.

"Lack of space was a problem," says Linda Schiffer, who turned to community gardening when she lived in a town house in Owen Brown. "But it wasn't the only problem. Our property had lots of trees. And in addition, the town house association had covenants thatprohibited anything that looked like a vegetable garden."

Columbia's community garden plots -- some 420 in all -- provide the space onwhich displaced suburban gardeners like Barbosa and Schiffer can pursue their gardening dreams.

Most gardeners concentrate on the serious business of producing food for the dinner table. Lettuce, beans, corn, hardy greens, onions, peppers, broccoli and, of course, tomatoes are among the common crops.

Many people also grow a few flowers on their 20 by 25 foot plot. Pumpkins and sunflowers, perennial favorites with children, are squeezed into family plots as well.

Growing things is not the only pleasure of community gardening. "I enjoy the other gardeners as much as I do the gardening," said Barbosa, president of Columbia Gardeners. "There is friendship and camaraderie. We commiserate about the weather, share the bounty of a bumper crop, or just a handful of herbs."

"And we learn ways of doing things we'd never imagined. I watched a woman create a spray for her seedlings bypouring buckets of water through a colander. I would never have thought of doing that."

"There's a humorous side to it, too," continues Barbosa. "We watch and enjoy each other's antics. One gardener was overheard talking to his Rototiller as if it were a mule, struggling through the rough places: 'Hey, Joe! Come on, come on!' "

The gardening season begins in late winter when gardeners apply for plots andbegin to peruse the seed catalogs. Early crops, such as peas, greens, and potatoes, can be planted in mid-March.

The major effort takes place in May, when full summer gardens are planted. "It's a wonderful time," says Mary Gold, manager of the Elkhorn garden site. "There's the smell of the earth. And gardens are so orderly before the weedsand summer heat take their tolls."

Later in the summer, gardenerssay, they like to wander among the plots and observe the diversity of crops and constructions. One gardener built a hut-sized structure to support vines yielding two-foot long squash basic to Vietnamese cuisine.

Individuality is central to gardening, the gardeners say. "Seeing each plot is just like looking right into the heart of the gardener," says Schiffer, referring to the rigid lines or chaotic plantings or unusual techniques of various gardens.

However, in a community garden, each gardener's freedom is limited. Columbia Gardeners' rules and regulations stipulate that "all plots must be tended on a regular basis. Weeds exceeding 18 inches in height must be removed. Untended plots may be repossessed by the organization."

Use of the water spigots is regulated, too -- "no sprinklers or soaker hoses." And public safety and mutual respect are mandates -- "no jaw traps" and "no taking of vegetables, flowers, or plants from another gardener's plot."

Ground hogs, deer, field mice and birds all like to eat sprouting seeds and seedlings. Most gardeners erect chicken wire fences to reduce the losses, but ground hogs have been seen pulling themselves up and over the wire fences -- hence the desire of some gardeners to fight back with traps.

Community gardening is a movement with its modern roots in the Victory Gardens of World War I and II. When thenation's farmers went off to war, the public was called upon to makeup the shortfall of produce. Golf courses, cemeteries, front yards -- all were dug up and planted, said Mary Lee Coe, an authority on community gardening.

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