For young city farmers, a summer of growth Children sell wares they grew in garden near B&O museum

August 23, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

The basil sold out early. Tomato and okra moved fast. Three pumpkins walked away in the first two hours.

Doug Miller Jr. and Will Shell, 11-year-old buddies who knew the history behind nearly every vegetable and herb that sat on their burlap-covered table at the 32nd Street Farmers Market yesterday, smiled at their good fortune.

A summer of digging in the dirt, of pulling weeds, of pruning and watering, mulching and grimy fingernails was paying off grandly. That green pepper -- the one that had been nothing more than a bud last month -- sold for 50 cents. And how about the rosemary -- mere twigs in the ground last June were now potted bushes fetching $5 each!

"It's been fun -- and hard work," said Doug who enters seventh grade at Diggs Johnson Middle School next week. "I'm kind of sorry to see it end."

For Doug and Will and eight other city kids ranging in age from 6 to 12, it has been a memorable summer in "The Great Green Growing Garden," the name the youngsters gave their fertile patch in Southwest Baltimore.

Living in a grim, drug-infested neighborhood with one of the city's highest public school drop-out rates, and where vacant, boarded-up rowhouses are more common than shade trees, these children may be Maryland's most unlikely farmers.

But here they were on 32nd Street rubbing shoulders with "certified organic farmers" from as far away as Pennsylvania, selling cucumbers four for a dollar, beets two for a dollar, and lavender tied in twine for $2 a bunch.

"These kids are so great because they have no fear," said Meg Taylor, the group's leader. "They're having fun."

Located along a railroad right of way about a half-mile west of the B&O Railroad Museum, the children's garden -- and its older, bigger neighbor, the B&O Community Garden -- are a verdant oasis in a concrete wasteland.

Sponsored by the New Southwest Community Association and the Parks & People Foundation, the private, nonprofit organization that supports city parks, a dozen 4-foot by 7-foot patches (one for each child with a couple of spares) were built with little more than $500, some surplus lumber and donated seedlings.

The children came here on Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and sometimes more often. Doug and Will developed a habit of wriggling under the 10-foot chain-link fence and sneaked into the garden on off days -- betrayed only by the absence of weeds in their plots.

"You see that and you want to scold them," said Taylor, who promotes city "market" gardens for the foundation, "but you want to praise them, too."

Like most of her peers, 8-year-old Gabrielle Iron Shell enjoyed watching the plants grow, but not the weeding. She liked to water, but not the hot weather. She enjoyed digging up worms, but not the hard labor.

"I loved the tomatoes best of all because I love to eat them," she said.

Will, who couldn't tell a cucumber from a squash at the beginning of summer, is now something of an expert on herbs. At the market, he was never too shy to pitch his wares.

"Rub that. It smells like pineapple," he said, pointing out his collection.

None of the children were paid to garden, yet most showed up faithfully. They wanted to be there, thanks in large measure to Taylor and Anne Ames, a retired social worker who is active in the New Southwest group.

Ames knows some of the youngsters come from troubled homes. "A lot of addiction. A lot of abuse," she says.

She harbors no illusions that a summer of gardening took that away. But she has seen them learn, and have fun, and grow -- definitely, grow.

"I think this really makes a difference in how they see their own futures," she said. "They see that they have a part to play and there's a reward for working with things."

They began harvesting their crops Friday, and a few youngsters were back yesterday at 5: 30 a.m. to bring in the most perishable items like herbs and kale. Thanks to some donated produce from Duncan Street Garden in East Baltimore, their spread at 32nd Street was quite impressive.

After five hours, they had collected about $300. The youngsters will split their earnings, setting aside a portion to pay for lunches on a coming field trip to a local farm. Organizers hope to re-create the garden next year, though they haven't figured out how to staff and pay for it.

"Not every kid is going to want to garden, but you get a core of 10 or 12 and you have something," said Patricia Iron Shell, Gabrielle's mother. "Even for those who drop out of a group, a seed has been planted inside. Everything makes a difference."

Mary Graul, owner of Graul's Markets in Ruxton and Timonium, was so impressed after seeing the group appear on local television that she drove to 32nd Street to buy a handmade pressed flower greeting card and a tomato Will had grown.

"They have a lot of pride," she said of the fledgling gardeners. "I just wanted to support that."

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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