Pumpkins rise in city yard

Mount Vernon church creates a seasonal patch to delight of kids and adults alike

October 23, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

The pumpkin patch that the Rev. Roger Scott Powers and his fellow congregants built doesn't offer hayrides. It has no view of rolling pastures or grazing cows, no corn maze, no quaint country shop selling jams made from fresh berries grown on the farm next door.

Instead, visitors will likely hear the roar of ambulances, the lurch of city buses stopping nearby and the click-click of fashionable heels hitting the well-traveled sidewalk. There is a lovely view, but it's of 19th-century townhouses. And if there were any berries growing around the place, you wouldn't want to eat them.

When you put a pumpkin patch in the middle of Baltimore, there are going to be some limitations.

But Powers, the associate pastor at First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, has assembled a team of undaunted volunteers. For the second year, they've managed to create a pumpkin patch in their stately courtyard at the corner of Madison Street and Park Avenue in the heart of Mount Vernon.

Powers says the church's Urban Pumpkin Patch is the city's first. And while firsts are always hard to prove, the pastor and his team get points for creativity.

They spread hay on the grass covering the 8,000 square-foot gated courtyard. Then they placed pumpkins along the brick paths, arranging them by size on pallets to make sure they wouldn't rot. They put up a scarecrow on the gate, made some ghost and goblin crafts to sell at a tented table, and completed the fall look with a cornucopia of gourds.

The Urban Pumpkin Patch is in keeping with the church's mission to serve the underprivileged and reach out to inner-city children whose parents might not be able to take them to a country farm to pick a pumpkin.

"We wanted to reach out to the community and let people know that we're here and interested in what goes on in downtown Baltimore," Powers said. "We thought a great way to reach out was to bring a pumpkin patch into the center of the city."

This year, the church received about a thousand pumpkins from Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, a North Carolina-based group that pays Navajo farmers to grow the gourds. In mid-October, the group trucks pumpkins to more than 1,300 mostly suburban and rural churches in the United States, which sell the pumpkins until Halloween.

The organization trusts that participating churches will send back about 75 percent of what they make and keep whatever's left for church activities.

In 2005, the pumpkin patches raised about $3.6 million for churches nationwide and about $2 million for the Navajo farmers.

Last year was First and Franklin's inaugural season in the pumpkin business. Things did not go that well.

Volunteers put a paper pumpkin outside the church's doors on Madison Street, but that hardly could compete with well-publicized suburban farms. Church members put a few pumpkins out on the street to advertise, but they were stolen.

The foot traffic in the area tends to be more of the business suit variety than the pumpkin-seeking kiddie set. And any families driving by that did notice the patch had a heck of a time finding street parking.

The weather didn't cooperate, either. It rained most days during the patch's two-week run from Oct. 16 through Halloween. And then there was the Rev. Alison Halsey's biggest fear: that the city's notorious rats would devour the pumpkins.

"I called the organization and asked, `What do you do about rodents?' The woman said, `Do you mean groundhogs?'" Halsey recalled. "I said, `No, I mean rats.' The woman didn't know the answer. She said they'd never been asked that question."

The woman was probably Gayle Yaeger, Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers' sales manager. Yaeger, who said that First and Franklin was the first urban church she'd ever worked with, said volunteers have called about squirrels, dogs, deer - even javelinas, pig-like creatures that have been known to steal pumpkins from church patches in Arizona.

But rats were a first. Fortunately, Baltimore's didn't seem to like the pumpkins.

In the end, the church made only about $1,000. Unlike some of its country counterparts, where leftovers are fed to farm animals, the church had to throw most of its extra pumpkins away.

Yet the few families that found the patch were so enthusiastic about it that Halsey and Powers decided to try again this year. With more young families deciding to stay in the city, they hoped there would be a draw to a pumpkin patch on a bus line.

Volunteers started early, getting notices for the Urban Pumpkin Patch in various magazines. But church officials hope that the best advertisement will be its location - the courtyard shares a gate with the play yard for the Downtown Baltimore Child Care Center, and many parents walk through the patch to pick up their children.

Last week, as she was coming out of the school, 4-year-old Tehya West grabbed a pumpkin, kissed it, and declared she was taking it home. Then she pulled out another, skinny one and put it to her ear.

"Look, Mommy! A pumpkin phone!" she said.

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