Grow your own in community plots

Lewis Sharpe and others can often be found caring for their gardens off North Avenue



MANY OF US REMEMBER watching our grandparents prepare their gardens of vegetables and fruit each spring. Although we may have made ourselves scarce come weeding time, we were first in line to savor the summer crop.

Today, family gardens are mainly a thing of the past. But in urban -- and suburban -- areas around Baltimore, gardens are still thriving and are more of a communal affair.

"A lot of these gardens are maintained by older African-American men and women with a history of gardening in the South," says Larry Kloze, the co-chairman of the community garden committee for the Maryland Cooperative Extension's Greater Baltimore Master Gardener Program. "With people's busy lives, vegetable gardening is not a high priority for people these days."

He says there are more than 100 certified gardens in the area.

That includes the Duncan Street Community Garden, a 1-acre oasis just steps away from the treeless, cracked and littered sidewalks of East Baltimore's North Avenue.

Between March and November, weather permitting, you will find Lewis Sharpe and his fellow gardeners tilling, planting, weeding and pruning the plot of land.

"I work from sun up to sun down," says Sharpe, 67. In these manicured and colorful beds, blackberry bushes, apple trees and cherry trees are alongside beds of collard greens, runner beans, squash, tomatoes, strawberries, watermelon and cantaloupe.

It's clear that Sharpe's fellow gardeners, who are all elderly, have also been at it for many years. Each carefully planted plot -- there are 10 this year -- reflects the expertise of its owner.

You might think that Sharpe and his cohorts are experts or master gardeners, but for many living off the land was a way of life at one time.

"When I was growing up in Richmond, [Va.], it was the only way we could eat," he says with a laugh.

A few of the plots, which are available for a rental fee of $20, have not been turned over this year.

"Four or five guys done passed," says Sharpe, who retired from Roane's Rigging and Transfer Co. Inc. in 1989.

He looks at one of the dormant plots and points to the back of one of the rowhouses that abuts the garden.

"The neighborhood lady in that house has cancer," he says. This year, he is maintaining her plot and will take her its bounty when it ripens.

Although people have encouraged the Duncan Street gardeners to sell their produce at local farmers' markets, they decline.

Instead, the group donates vegetables to two local churches, First Faith Temple Baptist and Horizon Zion Baptist, and invites members of the community to take what they need.

Sharpe, who is a member of First Faith, has been providing vegetables to the East Baltimore church for more than 10 years.

"Brother Sharpe's contributions stop up a lot of holes," says the Rev. Al McCoy Dandridge Sr. The church distributes the vegetables to "anyone short on food," whether they are in the congregation or in the community, and delivers them to the infirm.

"He has saved the church a lot of money and has helped us direct those savings to our other programs," says Dandridge. "We can't thank him and the Duncan Street gardeners enough."

When asked about his goals for the garden, Sharpe emphasizes that he wants to continue the work he and his fellow gardeners began when the once-vacant lot was cleaned up and transformed in 1989.

"I just want to get it beautiful," he says. "I want to make the neighborhood look better."

His efforts at beautification have been rewarded with grants from the Abell Foundation, an award from the Parks and People Foundation, and generous donations of rich soil and water from the City of Baltimore.

"Gardens are wonderful," Kloze says. "They provide a wonderful opportunity to meet your neighbors, they're a big help with your food budget, and they give everyone the opportunity to be generous."

Sharpe couldn't agree more. "What more can God bless you with than this?" he says, pointing from plant to plant and tree to tree. "I have been truly blessed."

To see a photo slide show about the garden, go to / unisun / garden.


To learn more about how you can participate in neighborhood gardens in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, call the Greater Baltimore Master Gardener Program at 410-856-1857 or visit / local / Baltimore City. You can also request information on how to become a certified master gardener.

To learn more about Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Park's City Farms Program, call 410-396-7839 or visit / govern ment / recnparks / home.htm.

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