Oasis in Columbia

Harvest: Friends meet and greet one another at Elkhorn community garden, a place they consider their own piece of heaven.

July 25, 1999|By Zanto Peabody | Zanto Peabody,SUN STAFF

Ron Somerville's cornstalks stand a full 7 feet tall and more, their tassels flapping in the wind like tongues mocking the season's drought.

Behind a veiling hedge in the Elkhorn community garden in Columbia, the drought does not exist. Neither do temporary lane closings, staff meetings or the other things that harry daily life. People come here to find peace and make their own Eden.

"I wish I could say that's a normal season [of corn] for me," Somerville said. "But I can't; this is the best corn I've ever grown."

His squash, too, are maturing to the richest greens and yellows. And his tomatoes, now in pre-harvest green, may produce 100 quarts by the end of summer. But Somerville is not blessed with an exceptionally green thumb. As much as his vegetables thrive, so do the plants in the 250 other plots separated by chicken wire in the 3-acre Elkhorn garden.

Gardeners rent plots from the Columbia Gardeners Association for $20 a season at the Elkhorn garden and two much smaller community gardens in Long Reach and Hickory Ridge. Most grow vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, but some also plant herbs and flowers.

Throughout the state, parched crops cower in the summer heat. But with their potatoes and berries, these gardens grow. The aroma of fresh onions, lilac and lemon basil cut through the Chesapeake humidity when the breeze is just strong enough to make snap dragon petals lean away from it.

"Watering -- it's the first order of business," Somerville said, dragging a garden hose half the length of the site. When the Columbia Association opened the gardens nearly 30 years ago, gardeners carried water in buckets to their plots. The hydrant was added later, after the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks took control of the land and began leasing it to the gardeners' group.

Lugging a bucket of water 100 yards every day sounds like a lot of work to produce an eggplant, but these mini-farmers are not just after the produce. To Barbara Love, stepping through the hedges at Elkhorn is like stepping out of the noisy, workaday world and into a scene from her one-stoplight hometown of Sparr, Fla.

"Get me back to that no-name countryside where I can kick up one heel and laugh and watch the birds fly," Love said, while hoeing a row of sweet potatoes.

"See, when I put my hoe to the ground," Love said, "I just let all my stress go into the ground, like therapy. Then I don't feel so stressed."

As a child in Florida, though, gardening for Love was a matter of necessity, not fun or therapy. She told herself she never again would put her hands in the dirt to plant collard greens. There was no way she would commute from working at John Bayne Elementary School in Prince George's County to labor in the punishing summer sun.

But when she saw okra on sale for $3.29 a pound, she said, "Never in my life will I pay that much for food I can grow."

Love, who lives in Greenbelt, is one of a handful of former Columbians who began planting in the community gardens while they lived here and now drive as much as 30 miles to keep up their patches.

Louise Davis of Owings Mills tends her plot at Elkhorn garden three times a week. She spends as much time trying to keep critters off her vegetables as she does planting and harvesting them.

"I wanted those tomatoes right there," Davis said, pointing to the gnawed remains of three ripe tomatoes. "I guess the rabbits wanted them worse than I did."

In swapping techniques to produce bigger bell peppers or helping out on the mandatory spring cleanup, the farmers make fast friends. Illness has kept eight-year community gardener Marie Nottage away from her daily maintenance. But most of her plot looks healthy, and weeds have not seized her tomatoes as she expected.

"Somebody has been watering my garden while I was gone," Nottage said on her first day back at Elkhorn. "At 87, I do all I can, and I let the Lord take care of the rest."

She suspects any of her neighbors would have noticed her absence and kept her tomatoes alive while she was gone. To return the favor, she shooed a groundhog away from a neighboring squash patch.

Love and her husband, Sam, felt as if they were in some agricultural twilight zone when they moved from Columbia to Greenbelt and discovered Gail Barbosa, the former Elkhorn garden site manager whose plot is adjacent to the Loves', was buying the house next door.

"We were friends and neighbors [in the garden]," Sam Love said. "And now we are friends and neighbors in Greenbelt."

The astute make friends with the more astute. Just about everybody at Elkhorn can recall a tip offered by Herb -- Love calls him "Herbal" -- Simmons, whose eight plots feature handmade trestlework where vines wind their way up.

"He was walking by and saw my onions were not as big as they could be," Love said. "He said if I don't plant them so deep, the roots would grow bigger. That's the kind of stuff you learn from him without having to ask."

Harvest time is a good time to get chummy with the gardeners. The association fills baskets with surplus vegetables for donations to nonprofit food pantries. Love gives vegetables to her fourth-grade students and church members. Nottage donates to Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center. Somerville, who grows 100 quarts of tomatoes -- enough to last his family three years -- produces what could be a Bubba Gump list of tomato recipes.

"Anybody who will take them, I give them to them," Somerville said. "Then we make tomato sauce, tomato spaghetti sauce, tomatoes with lasagna, tomato everything."

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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