Urban gardens gain ground

Community efforts are driven by price and safety concerns

August 14, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

Bob McKenney drives up to Kinder Farm Park in Millersville three times a week to tend his squash, cucumbers, green beans, carrots, cantaloupes and watermelons. The Annapolis retiree lives in a condominium and doesn't have anywhere else to garden.

"They would raise Cain if I tore up the grass and put in a garden," McKenney said with a chuckle. If plans for a proposed community gardens in the city come to fruition, McKenney might just stay local to get his fruit and vegetables. Rising fuel costs are eating into his savings on his grocery bill. "I burn a lot of gas coming up here," he said.

Helen Loughrey, 46, of Edgewater is trying to bring community gardens within walking distance of their gardeners. She founded Annapolis Community Gardens, a consulting business, last year to advise schools, hospitals, apartment complexes and neighborhood associations on how to set up a structure for urban agriculture.

Community gardens, such as Kinder Farm, are good, but they don't help low-income city residents who rely on public transportation, Loughrey said. By bringing the gardens to smaller plots within the city, those residents can get fresh vegetables at a reasonable price. With food banks stressed, it makes even more sense to learn gardening, Loughrey said. Besides, Kinder Farm has a waiting list of 20 to 30 people, said William Offutt, the park superintendent.

The gardening movement is picking up more steam as food prices increase and food-borne illnesses cause nationwide recalls. Food costs have risen as rising gas prices push up the cost to transport food. It costs more, too, for farmers who have to pay for gas to run their threshers, irrigation machines and other machinery. In addition, recent outbreaks of salmonella poisoning have led people to be more concerned about where their food is coming from, Loughrey said.

"I think we need to start relocalizing our food supply," said Loughrey, who lives in a town house with her husband, Wade Story, and 11-year-old daughter, Maeve. "We've made our population vulnerable to interruptions in the food supply."

The concept of urban gardening already is popular in places such as New York City, Washington and Baltimore. In addition to Annapolis, Loughrey would like to bring community gardens to other places in Anne Arundel County.

Community gardens work in several ways. County-owned Kinder Farm leases 125 plots to county residents, who are responsible for tending their own harvest. The South County Community Garden, also county-owned, in Lothian requires its members to commit to work at least 10 hours a month in a large communal garden. The volunteers donate 80 percent of the harvest to local nonprofits and keep the remainder for themselves.

County officials are thinking of setting up a community garden in a portion of the former Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills. No decision has been made on how it would be structured.

With community-supported agriculture organizations, residents can join a farming cooperative and receive fresh vegetables for a membership fee.

Under Loughrey's model, churches could use green space for gardens to help parishioners or charities. Schools could use them as educational tools for students. Vacant lots also can serve as community gardens and a site for people to come together to socialize. Apartment complexes could offer them as a perk to residents. The gardens also beautify the community and help foster social networks, said Loughrey, a former social worker.

Jack Crandell of Brooklyn Park has been gardening at Kinder Farm for more than 20 years. He said gardeners are quick to share food, flowers and tips with each other.

"I know my gardening neighbors better than my own neighbors," said Crandell, who farms two plots and helps his sisters tend two others.

This year, the Crandell family plots have yielded 21 quarts of beans, 25 quarts of tomatoes, 10 cans of tomato sauce and five quarts of beets, he said. Crandell supports efforts to bring in community gardens in neighborhoods.

"I think they should do it, if they have some open space," Crandell said.

Loughrey was working with city officials to put in a roof garden on the Stanton Community Center on Clay Street, but the site did not have enough sunlight. City officials are open to the program, but there are few open spaces they can offer. "We love the idea ... but we haven't been able to find a suitable parcel," said Lee Ann Plumer, director of Annapolis City Recreation and Parks.

Loughrey looked into setting up a nonprofit, so that she could apply for grants to pay for her services. Because the process is time-consuming and requires legal fees, she has been trying to steer established nonprofits to obtain their own grants to pay for her services. She provides the site survey, design, supplies, workshop training, reference library and follow-up consulting.

Community gardens need oversight committees to collect fees, mediate disputes and make sure gardeners follow rules, Loughrey and Offutt said. Kinder Farm charges gardeners $35 per season. The park provides water and a compost heap. Every year there is about 15 percent turnover from well-intentioned gardeners who just can't keep up with the watering and weeding, Offutt said.

Crandell said community gardeners in the city won't have to work as hard as he does to ward off groundhogs, crows, rabbits and deer. They will have to be vigilant of poachers - passersby looking to score on fresh veggies. That happens sometimes at Kinder Farm.

McKenney grows enough to feed his family and the critters that venture into his garden. "It saves money," he said. "Plus the taste. It's all about the taste."

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