Planting roots in city gardens Plots: Baltimore residents who often have small or no back yards for gardening plant flowers and vegetables in plots offered at seven parks, including Druid Hill, for $14.

July 06, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Ruth Carras was ready to quit Baltimore a few years ago. Nothing especially bad had happened, but when the time came to give up her apartment, the retired college teacher started thinking about living somewhere quieter and cleaner.

One amenity kept Carras from moving over the city line: her gardens in Druid Hill Park.

"We got our first tomato [last week]," said Carras, 76, who tends six plots with her daughter, Kate. "Not bad."

In a city known for narrow back yards as likely to be concrete as soil, Baltimore's urban farming program has waiting lists for an estimated 600 plots at seven parks: Druid Hill, Patterson, Holabird, Carroll, Leakin, Clifton and a smaller area on Woodbourne Avenue called Dewees.

Willi Cotton's trio of 10-by-15-foot plots at Druid Hill are far from lush, but they give her more room than the windowsill of her third-floor apartment on Auchentoroly Terrace.

"This is one of those 'get your aggressions out' kind of things, where you can sweat and get dirty," said Cotton with a hoe in hand and sweat on her brow. "It always looks easy until you start digging it up. Some of these gardens are really wonderful, but mine's just so-so. I think I bit off a little more than I could chew."

Cotton bit off more than she could chew so she and her friends could nibble on eggplant, green peppers, cantaloupe, string beans, collard greens, artichoke and "enough tomatoes to feed the world."

"That's one of the memories of my childhood -- taking a salt shaker out to my daddy's garden in a vacant lot near our house and eating tomatoes off the vine," she said.

Rabbits are the city gardens' primary pests. Heat often limits work to the early mornings and evenings. Breezes tickle lush bushes of dill, bees bumble between lilies and zinnias, and rickety window frames tied to chicken wire mark the perimeters.

The areas people plant -- like Robert Speaker's asparagus bed that needs more sun than his Charles Village rowhouse affords -- are garnished with "garden gifts," the sprouts of plants that have gone to seed. In Druid Hill, horseradish and garlic run wild.

"I like to play in the dirt, and it's a great way to get fresh cut flowers like larkspur and bachelor's-buttons," said Speaker, who moved to the city from Anne Arundel County four years ago after retiring from the federal government.

'Reflective of neighborhoods'

"The gardens are pretty reflective of the neighborhoods they draw from," said William Stine, the city's chief horticulturist. "Druid Hill is more organic -- more flowers and herbs -- while Dewees is more of a down-home garden you might see in the South. They can take what they grow for home, sell preserves at flea markets or donate them to churches that help feed the homeless."

Each plot costs $14 a year with a limit of three plots per person. Stine said the annual City Farm Supper is scheduled from 6: 30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Virginia Baker Recreation Center in Patterson Park. Prizes for each park's best garden will be awarded, and most of the food will be from the farming program's harvest.

Carras and her daughter -- who raise plants from seed and share them -- have three plots each at Druid Hill.

Volunteer coordinator

After gardening in the park for five years, Carras agreed to be the volunteer program coordinator in Druid Hill if her daughter would help. The city supplies mulch and water, but Carras and her daughter have spent their money to keep the gardens going.

"We get a plot and a half for free for volunteering, but I spend more than that to mend the hoses and the faucets and bring over wasp killer, little things like that," said Carras, who lives in a condominium in Upper Park Heights and visits her parcel early in the morning.

This year, she has added a half-dozen sweet potato plants.

Although Carras has lived in cities most of her life, she does not consider herself a city person. She started gardening in the park after taking a master gardening course at Cylburn Arboretum on Greenspring Avenue.

"We grow small quantities of a variety of things," she said of plants that run from gooseberries to tulip bulbs. "I give some of it away as presents."

One recent evening, as the temperature dipped below 90 degrees, Susie Manger went to her garden to do some watering before going home to make dinner. A good thunderstorm would have saved her the trip, but none rolled in.

"It's amazing what all-day sun can do to make things grow," said Manger, a kindergarten teacher at Roland Park Elementary School whose Charles Village yard is dominated by shade trees. "I guess if you were really a farmer and did this all the time, it wouldn't be so amazing."

Pub Date: 7/06/98

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