Glossy, purple-black eggplant, rainbow heirloom tomatoes, fresh cilantro, bronzy Zulu sunflowers.
If you covet homegrown produce but lack the space or sun for a garden, or if you'd like the company of fellow gardeners and some hands-on guidance from a master, a community garden could be the solution.
And now is the time to get started. Winter's calm not only offers an opportunity to plan any gardening project, but sign-ups for plots in local community gardens begin in just a few weeks.
Community gardens have a long history. Native Americans practiced community gardening long before the colonists planted turnips together at Jamestown. While community gardening back then was all about survival, it always had side-dressings of friendship and learning, and that hasn't changed.
"There's a lot of important things discussed there other than vegetables, and a lot of new friendships develop," says Larry Kloze, former co-chair of the Community Garden Committee of the Master Gardeners of Baltimore City. Kloze is one of 110 members of Master Gardeners, who collaborate with a range of individuals and community groups to create and maintain community gardens.
Community gardens vary considerably in set-up and character. Some offer individuals an opportunity to rent garden plots in parks to grow their own vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. Others are the joint work of individuals and community groups who want to enhance a bereft bit of ground. Some are even reclamation projects.
"We transform areas from rubble mounds to gardens," says Ed Miller, supervisor of the community-lot team at Civic Works, a nonprofit service corps in Baltimore.
Girls Helping Girls Grow, a garden at Garrison Middle School, is primarily educational.
"It's a partnership between Roland Park Country School and Garrison Middle that uses a vegetable garden as a teaching aid," says Kloze.
The lessons can range from practical, (how to grow food), to emotional (the satisfaction of holding the literal fruits of your own labor in your hands) to character-building (the incremental gratification of nurturing living things).
Community gardens can also offer kids a chance to volunteer.
"We have school groups come and do some of their community service [requirement] in our gardens," says Miller.
Civic Works projects (often done in collaboration with other agencies and community groups) include a community garden with a mural on North Avenue and a labyrinth, butterfly garden and nursery on what was a demolition site behind Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in East Baltimore.
For individuals who want to grow their own food, herbs and flowers but lack space or sun, there is City Farms, a project begun in 1978 by Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Participants rent 15-by-20-foot plots in local parks for $20 a year.
Plot holders from the previous year get first dibs on their space at sign-up time in February and March. Though most plots are renewed each year, there are about 50 up for grabs at Fort Holabird Park. And there may soon be a new community garden in Federal Hill.
"I'd like to put one in Riverside Park this year," says Bill Vondrasek, chief horticulturist at Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks.
City Farms would break sod and prep the ground before renting the new plots.
For each community garden, the city provides wood chips for mulch, leaf mold compost, and a place to compost organic waste. The rest is up to plot holders, who must keep their plots maintained.
At season's end, City Farms sponsors a harvest supper.
"Everybody brings a dish and we sponsor hot dogs and hamburgers and a grill," says Vondrasek. "It's fun. There are garden contests and door prizes."
The community gardens in Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard, and Baltimore counties are run on much the same terms, though some, for example Stansbury Park community garden in Baltimore County, restrict some chemical use and certain plants.
Other community gardens are more like civic outreach. For example, the Parks and People Foundation focuses on green space - improving what's there and creating new areas for the public to enjoy. To that end, the group offers small grants to community groups for gardening projects.
"It's a way to initiate projects and give technical support," says Kari Smith, assistant director of the foundation's Community Greening Stewardship Program. "Anything from planting trees and holding events in parks, to vacant-lot restoration and planting individual trees on streets for someone who wants one."
One of the program's recent joint projects is a garden with Lighthouse Ministries in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester community, on an abandoned lot that naysayers claimed would never grow anything.
"It looks like a piece of Eden now," says Brenda Harrison, co-pastor of Lighthouse Ministries.
Wisely, instead of blocking or rerouting a path worn by people walking to a restaurant on the other side of the lot, the design incorporated it.