Out of the dead ground spring the tendrils of renewed hope

March 22, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

Even now, if you squint just a little and imagine quite a lot, you can see the Village Green garden in Remington as it will emerge in the coming months: The dark green leaves of spinach and the delicate tendrils of sugar snap peas will poke through the soil first. Later, the winter-bare canes will turn bushy, and the gem-like berries - blue-, black- and raspberries - will ripen in clusters. The cycle is reassuringly the same as always: The tomatoes and peppers of summer will give way to the kale and collard greens of fall, and then it starts over again.

After a winter of such discontent, have you ever anticipated the arrival of any spring more than this one?

No, the vernal equinox will not fix the Dow, nor will it magically grow jobs or 401(k) returns that are as bountiful as zucchini. You know this, even as you stand in that most hopeful place, the garden, on that most hopeful day of the year, the first day of spring.

But it's hard to wallow in winter's woes when the days grow brighter and longer and there is ground to be turned and seeds to be planted. Even, or maybe especially, when nothing else seems to be going right in the world, there is always another chance to sow and ultimately - weeds, bugs and weather willing - reap.

"For me, it's kind of an exercise in imagination," says Roy Skeen, one of the organizers who turned a vacant, trash-strewn lot in Remington into a community garden for nearby residents. "All winter you look through seed catalogs and see what you want to try to grow in the spring. It's exciting."

This year, seed companies and industry groups are saying, the number of people planting vegetable gardens is sure to rise. Whether it's because consumers want to save money on groceries, or that the suddenly unemployed have more time to labor in the backyard, the idea of growing at least some of your own food resonates during these uncertain times even among those more accustomed to getting their produce from a shelf rather than the soil. Even the White House, with its battalions of chefs and wealth of food suppliers, is getting down in the dirt this year - on Friday, Michelle Obama and a group of schoolchildren began tilling 1,100 square feet of the lawn for an organic garden.

For a change, it's not only about the economy. Josue Lopez, urban agriculture educator for the Maryland Cooperative Extension, said interest in vegetable gardening has been growing in recent years as part of the whole Slow Food, locavore movement.

It doesn't get much more local than your own backyard, or, at the community garden in your neighborhood or the city farms in parks like Druid Hill and Leakin.

"You see a small piece of heaven there," Lopez said of the gardens that flourish in even the most urban of environments.

The Remington garden is testament to what a small parcel - the land was once home to six narrow rowhouses - and the sweat of a group of nearby residents can produce: Gardeners last year planted a row of purple green beans on a thin strip of soil, using the fence to the Anderson Body Shop next door as their trellis. (The shop also let the gardeners hook up four plastic tanks to their drain pipe to collect rainwater for their plants.) There are two peach trees and an asparagus trench. Residents built 4-foot-by-16-foot raised beds that people can rent to plant whatever they want - a family originally from Bangladesh grew taro root last year. And a week ago, volunteers dug up, by hand, a 600-square-foot plot and enriched it with composted cow manure that the extension service got for them from the university's dairy farm. It will be planted as a shared garden - if you work one day a week on it, you get a portion of whatever is harvested.

But the 27-year-old Skeen's favorite part of the garden may be the strawberry patch that has taken over one of the raised beds.

"This was 12 plants that we let colonize," he said. "That's what blows my mind, the idea that with one seed you can repopulate the world with strawberries."

He's taken the master gardening class that the extension service offers and has become a big booster of community gardens. He organized a bike tour last year that included some that were hidden away in the most unlikely of urban landscapes - I drove by one in the Johnston Square neighborhood, where some kale from last year was still growing, in the midst of boarded-up houses.

Skeen works as a landscape contractor, but his interest in vegetable gardening has turned his business into one that focuses more on edibles than ornamentals.

"It just seemed like it would be more meaningful work to plant things for people to sustain themselves," he said.

There's probably some sort of larger lesson here, something about self-sufficiency, or long-term investing strategies (the asparagus planted last year won't even produce spears until next year), or dealing with predators (the beetles, not mortgage lenders, that wiped out last year's cucumbers).

Or maybe it's simply that no matter what blighted your tomatoes or whatever evil animal chewed through your lettuce last year, every spring you get to try again.

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