On a block in Sandtown-Winchester cooled by a canopy of sycamores, Mary Day-Smith fills brick planters with pansies, marigolds, coleus, petunias, salvia and begonias. Mary, 10, has grown very attached to the flowers and vegetable plants that have transformed her West Baltimore neighborhood into a verdant oasis.
"It's like our own children; that's how fun it is to plant flowers," says Mary, who is working with other kids under the guidance of neighbors Justine Bonner and Barbara Love.
Soon, the kids will follow another elder, Rudolph Boston, around the corner to a large community garden plot where he will show them how to sow peanuts.
A neighborhood once pocked with trash-strewn vacant lots has become fertile ground; not just for zinnias and zucchini, but for lives no longer held hostage by drugs and despair.
What began as an effort to fight "crime and grime" has become a catalyst for engaging children, feeding the hungry, teaching skills, luring newcomers, improving the environment, re-establishing the community.
"It strengthens the neighborhood to have these spaces, from an aesthetic point of view," says Bonner, who has played a crucial role in her neighborhood's transition. "In terms of health, the garden improves the quality of the air," she says.
The community's nine gardens, all within an area bordered by Riggs, Fremont, Lafayette and Fulton avenues, "act like a bridge between the older group and the younger group," Bonner says.
The Sandtown project has generated a web of garden activists that reaches beyond Baltimore to include volunteers from as far away as Cambodia and Malawi.
Bonner's neighborhood featured a few showcase gardens when the retired New York City middle school teacher returned seven years ago to the North Carrollton Avenue home where she was born. But her city block's common back lot had mostly become a dumping ground.
Her childhood landscape had been different. "I think there were some garages back there, [but] most of it was always an open area. There was a nice tree that used to have a tire swing and the boys used to play baseball back there," Bonner says.
Bonner's rejuvenated backyard garden spilled into her former playground. One morning, a group of kids came through the alley and asked, "'Can we help? Can we help?'"
At first, "I said no," Bonner says. Ever the teacher, she thought they needed a botany lesson first. But she relented and let the kids dig holes and plant seeds willy-nilly, squash next to zucchini next to okra. "It was not organized, but everything they planted, grew," Bonner says. Their efforts gave them a stake in the garden and its upkeep.
An earlier garden project initiated by Wesley Richardson with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension had not involved the children, Bonner says. "Some didn't respect it and thought the heirloom tomatoes were toys."
Soon, Bonner and neighbors were filling the lot's newly constructed raised beds with pumpkins, collard greens, corn and a profusion of flowers. One plot was devoted to the children, who took ownership with the words "Kids' Garden" spelled out in soda cans. Because the soil tested high for lead, they were first steered away from the vegetables until the levels were reduced with the addition of compost, fertilizer and other materials.
A deterrent to crime
Bonner's efforts overlapped with those of JoAnn Osborne, president of the Carrollton Avenue Community Association. In 1993, with non-profit and private support, she and others planted a garden as a deterrent to crime. Vacant lots were encouraging drug activity because they "gave the community the look that nobody cared," Osborne says.
The neighborhood's collective expertise expanded when Bonner and two other neighbors, Richardson and Hannah Trent, became master gardeners through the Cooperative Extension program. And, delighted by the new bloom on Sandtown, more and more residents offered their services in the garden.
Together, the gardeners made an empowering statement about controlling the environment. Either "you're going to determine what is going to be here -- or you can let other forces determine that," Bonner says.
The most active gardeners are responsible for specific beds. Trent became the primary caretaker of the Gateway Garden, a narrow plot on the site of a razed rowhouse filled with astilbe, irises and hostas.
Trent also tends the "Memory Garden" on the corner of Mosher and Carey streets. It is a tribute to the "young people that were dying on the corner and the older families that died in this neighborhood," she says. Landscaped in the shape of a cross, the Memory Garden is filled with yellow day lilies and rudbeckia. Before, it was cluttered with litter and graffiti marred an adjacent wall. Now, neighbors "won't let anybody come in and just mess it up," Trent says.