At sunrise yesterday, Francis Hayward Brown stepped cautiously into his small garden plot in East Baltimore to inspect a strawberry patch. He's a city boy and gardening is relatively new to him.
"It looks like a bud to me," the retired steel worker said, closely inspecting the base of a bush. "It's either that or a rock." It's a rock.
Mr. Brown's garden is a 30-foot-by-60-foot plot in a lot the size of a football field on Duncan Street, behind the 2100 block of E. North Ave. With 39 plots of similar size, the lot contains one of the largest inner-city gardens in Baltimore.
"I've got rows of collards [greens] and peas," Mr. Brown said, pointing to the finely manicured but bare rows of his plot. Dew glistens on the pebbles in the garden and falls from cabbage leaves in a nearby plot.
The Duncan Street lot is one of about 100 vacant lots in the city's "Adopt A Lot" program, according to Marcia M. Collins, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works.
Under the program, communities enter into yearly agreements with the city to use the lots at no charge, Ms. Collins said. The residents clean the lots and the city picks up the trash. The agreements are renewed automatically unless the city needs the land for development.
"For us, it's fantastic because they're putting love and care there. These lots are very noticeable and symbolic of a lot of hard work these people do on a day-to-day basis," Ms. Collins said.
Six years ago, the Duncan Street site in the low-income South Clifton Park community was a dumping ground, filled with abandoned cars and other trash. Several years earlier, the rowhouses in the 1800 block of N. Duncan St. were demolished, creating the lot that became an eyesore and a hazard.
"I got upset when one day a young lady was attacked in an old, abandoned car out here," said Mr. Brown, president of the Pharoah Assentive Community Association. "That didn't make any sense. We had to do something."
In 1988, the community group negotiated an agreement with the city to use the lot for a garden.
This year, the association received a $5,000 grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation to install an irrigation system that will be connected to municipal water pipes underground, enabling each of the plots to be watered thoroughly and simultaneously.
The association will hold fund-raisers to pay the water bill, Mr. Brown said.
Yesterday, he and a half-dozen other gardeners worked their plots -- tilling the soil, pulling weeds and occasionally reaping modest harvests.
"We got some good rain last week so that was good. Everything is OK," said Mr. Brown, sounding like a farmer.
Anything the garden yields is fine with Mr. Brown who, unlike most of the other gardeners, was not raised in the South, and has no farming experience. He grew up "right here in East Baltimore. That's my experience."
"This is a learning experience for me, but I'm holding my own," said Mr. Brown, who has been gardening for about four years. "I've got the barest lot here it seems."
For the gardeners, the bushels of butter beans, tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables and fruits they harvest are secondary.
What's important for them is the sense of pride the fenced-in garden brings to the community, a section of the eastside known for drugs and violent crime.
"Nobody bothers the garden because we don't let it happen," said James Williams, 23, who lives nearby in the 2000 block of E. North Ave. but does not have a plot in the garden.
"Everybody watches out for it because we all care about it."
"Before, people used to speed past it as they drove on North Avenue. Now they stop and come and take a look," he said.