Suburbanites get back to earth in community garden

Howard Neighbors

July 28, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

It's easily 95 degrees at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and air is so thick with humidity your lungs would prefer to wring it out before breathing it in. Undaunted, Emily Green Shaw scatters straw in her garden plot to keep the weeds down, and recounts how she became the site manager for the Lake Elkhorn Community Gardens in Columbia.

"I was at one of the Columbia Gardeners meetings, and no one else would say `yes'" she said.

It's not as if Shaw, 30, has copious free time. Trained as a medical illustrator, Shaw is a simulation specialist with Laerdal and travels internationally teaching medical procedures with software she helped develop. She also runs a freelance medical illustration business and plays ice hockey with three recreational teams. Gardening, though, is her passion - she dreams of owning a farm someday.

"Growing produce on the land is so ... I don't know, so much more effective. It's the opposite of wasteful," she said.

Lake Elkhorn has 210 plots off Oakland Mills Road on nearly 2 1/2 acres, and is one of three community gardens: there are 4 acres at West Side on Guilford Road in Columbia, and 3 acres at Long Reach on Old Dobbin Lane. The county has been entering into license agreements with Columbia Gardeners since 1977. Columbia Gardeners, in turn, "rents" the plots - which are 25 feet by 20 feet - to gardeners for $35 a season.

Gardeners are required to do a minimum of four hours of volunteer work - either on the "common gardens" in front of the plots, on the compost areas, or by pitching in with administrative tasks. At Lake Elkhorn, Shaw has gardeners working on developing a Web site, a map of the gardens and street signs. Gardeners can also volunteer to act as translators, helping those with limited English skills.

Current gardeners "re-up" to maintain their plot by March 1 of each year. Then, the remaining parcels are up for grabs.

"There has been a waiting list," said Shaw, "but if gardens aren't maintained by midseason, we reassign them."

The cost is now pro-rated to $25, and there are eight plots available at Lake Elkhorn.

Doug Schamburg, 34, has come out with a weed-whacker, attacking his plot with a vengeance.

"Don't look at this!" said Schamburg, who lives in a Columbia condominium, gesturing at an overgrown area. Schamburg explains that this season he and his wife, Jessica, have had to attend a lot of weddings on weekends, and the weeds took full advantage.

Mickey Webb, 31, grew up on a tobacco farm in Tennessee and says he wasn't prepared for the crop damage wrought by groundhogs and deer this year. "But I have a tan," he said.

Shaw says her gardeners have captured and relocated about 20 groundhogs this summer.

Najad Tuffaha, 67, tends a garden worthy of a Beatrix Potter illustration. Why doesn't he have any weeds?

"I first put down a layer of newspapers," he said.

"Old Baltimore Sun papers," he qualifies. "Next, wood chips, then straw, then landscape film."

Tuffaha, a retired engineer, said, "When you're an office worker, you may design something, but you rarely see real production. This is something you can put your hands on - you can make changes, see results."

Carole Graves, 61, Tuffaha's wife, says the plot started as her retirement project. "I needed to transition from a stressful job and wanted something that would keep me occupied. It kept me occupied more than I could have imagined. Every season has its challenges - one year it was poison ivy, then a woodchuck, the next it was thistles by the handful."

Tuffaha grows specialty vegetables, including Mexican tomatillos that look like fragile paper lanterns swinging on the vine.

"I try to grow things that are expensive in the farmers' markets," he said. "I have friends who grow potatoes, and I say, `Why potatoes, when they are just cents for the pound at the supermarket?'"

Bob McFeeters, 49, vice president of Columbia Gardeners, would beg to differ. "My original love is for home-grown tomatoes," he said. "I have 75 tomato plants - but I also grow potatoes. It's just so satisfying to make a potato dish from potatoes you've grown yourself."

Clyde Pyers, 72, president of Columbia Gardeners, says that when the county designated these open garden spaces as permanent, it allowed gardeners the freedom to establish rhubarb and asparagus - plants that would produce for years.

There's plenty of asparagus in Dave Roberts' plot. Roberts, 54, inherited his plot from his parents and has been gardening here for 16 years. He makes the 25-minute drive from his home in Laurel every few days during the summer because "my wife and I really like fresh beans and tomatoes."

Roberts, who teaches math at Prince George's Community College, says he also enjoys gardening as an exercise that is "not really all that strenuous at any one moment."

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