Practicing smart growth

Community gardeners taking lessons in nutrition, charity, stress reduction


Lisa Musser-Jacobs, whose dad grew up on a farm in Gaithersburg, never wanted her daughters to think produce just magically appeared in the supermarket.

After spending a hot Saturday morning tending the South County Community Garden, they don't.

With as many as 100 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs - including 400 tomato plants and a third of a mile of potatoes - the garden has sprouted lessons about work, charity and family.

Musser-Jacobs, who along with her husband, Don, and their two children, Kara, 12, and Leigh, 9, are among the 42 members of the 3 1/2 -acre garden next to Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Lothian.

More like a small farm than a typical community garden where land is subdivided and individuals work separate plots, this privately operated garden is communal, said Lloyd Lewis, a Mayo resident and head volunteer gardener.

Under his direction, families and individuals commit to working in the garden at least 10 hours a month throughout the growing season, nurturing seedlings, planting and tending crops, and harvesting up to 150 bushels of produce. The volunteer gardeners donate 80 percent of that bounty to local nonprofit organizations, and they take home 10 percent. The rest goes to the critters the fence can't keep out.

Two barns and a shed house the farm equipment and wheat straw purchased from neighboring farmers that is used to mulch the garden. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center donated a greenhouse where seedlings are started in late winter.

"We start our spring and early-summer plants in March, while there's still snow on the ground," said Lewis. "Because the plants are started in the climate-controlled greenhouse, we have early production, harvesting tomatoes in late June and early July."

A local beekeeper maintains hives that aid with pollination and provide honey for members. Members also take turns watering, mulching and mowing, but everyone is called upon when it's time to plant and harvest, said Lewis.

Mike Thompson of Churchton, whose day job is developing software for the county, became a community gardener this year. He said he puts in five to 10 hours a week there. "Every member pays $150," said Thompson. "I got back $150 worth of stuff before the summer garden came in.

"The process has dropped my blood pressure from `you might need some medicine' to `nice and low,'" said Thompson, 50, whose eldest son has volunteered in the garden. "The reason for that," he said, "is that this is a big, big garden, and a huge amount of manual labor."

Musser-Jacobs, of Churchton, agreed the gardening is a lot of work. It takes a day just to water all the tomatoes, and she has never paid so much attention to the rain forecast. But she likes spending her weekends there.

"The part I like best is giving the stuff to the elderly," Musser-Jacobs said. "Both my parents have passed on, but both of them would have loved this, my dad especially."

Phelps Kelly, 45, of Arnold said he enjoys spending Saturday mornings in the garden with daughters Brianna and Maggie.

A freshman at Severna Park High School, Brianna, 14, enjoys the "garden's landscaping," which attracts many birds. Having studied bird calls in school, Brianna recently identified an Eastern wood peewee by his call. "There are birds flying all over the place," she said.

Maggie, 11, a sixth-grader at Key School, said of her community garden experience: "I like to dig up all the food because when you go home you can have a bunch of good food to eat."

Musser-Jacobs is impressed with the way Lewis encourages the children's interest in the garden.

"Lloyd is so funny with the kids," she said. "He says, `Oh, look. Here's a sweet pea. Try this sweet pea right off the vine.' And before you know it, kids who won't eat vegetables for their parents are eating them and saying, `This is so good.'"

A retired federal oceanographer, Lewis, 67, joked that when he was a kid, "My mother used to beat me silly to get me to weed the garden."

No such coercion is necessary today. The man who divides his volunteer time between the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Mayo Kiwanis Club and the community garden said, "It gets in your blood." He personally delivers much of the produce donated to the South County Senior Center in Edgewater; Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church's assistance program; Camp Wabanna, a nondenominational camp for children; and to individuals in need.

"The lion's share goes to South County Senior Center," said Lewis.

When the harvest is at its peak, volunteer gardeners deliver the freshly picked produce to the senior center two or three times a week. The free food is laid out on tables and it's first-come, first-served.

"The price is right," said center Director Sharon Poet, "and it promotes good eating and good nutrition. The seniors take their pick, take it home and enjoy it."

That's also what the birds, rabbits, moles and groundhogs do. While the electric fence, donated by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, keeps out the deer, other intruders are undeterred.

"Groundhogs used to come along and eat one bite out of a ripe tomato, decide they don't like that one, and move on to the next," Lewis said.

At least for now, the gardeners are one step ahead of the groundhogs: The volunteers pick the tomatoes while they're green and let them ripen on the windowsill.

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