Urban garden plot plants seeds of hope

March 30, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

With hefty pickaxes, hoes and shovels, three teenage boys turned over long-neglected ground. They struck heavy rocks, deeply embedded roots and unfamiliar underground growth, and yanked it all from the soil to make way for an urban vegetable garden.

Farming builds character, said 18-year-old James Morrison, adding, "I don't mind getting dirty, and I am getting to appreciate manual labor."

Morrison and several classmates from Our House, a residential job-training center for at-risk youth in Olney, volunteer weekly at the Samaritan Women, a fledgling ministry working to convert an estate off Frederick Road into a home for women in recovery, a culinary school, an events center and a community garden. The 23-acre property, just inside the Baltimore city-county line, includes a 120-year-old Victorian mansion and a second home built in 1924, both long vacant and in need of much repair.

Volunteers have recently been tackling the grounds. The ever-higher pile of yard waste is a testament to the intense tilling.

"All we need is a chipper, and we will be making mulch for months," said Jeanne L. Allert, 47, director of the Samaritan Women.

About 8 acres of the property are suited to farming, with the rest of the land wooded. Initial plans call for planting about 3 acres of vegetables this year, everything from arugula to zucchini. Allert will donate the produce to area soup kitchens, food pantries and homeless shelters. As the garden expands, she envisions individual plots for residents of the surrounding community.

"This is not a moneymaker," she said. "It is community outreach and making something unproductive thrive. I may have a Pollyanna view of the world, but this is what land should be used for."

Roy Skeen has volunteered to manage the ministry's garden. The work will give youngsters who might not often get their hands in the soil a chance to see seedlings grow into food.

"This is a job-training program where the work is the teacher," said Skeen, whose Charm City Farms raises crops on plots throughout the city.

The Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents, the ministry's nearest neighbor, is also lending many helping hands - and its greenhouse - to the effort.

"We want to teach kids the full cycle of food, from garden to table," Allert said. "They can learn to grow and eat carrots so that they don't think every orange food is a cheese ball."

Along with RICA and Our House, nearly 30 businesses and churches, including a Kentucky congregation, are sharing volunteers and resources with the ministry. The home and school are about a year away, but the first rows of early vegetables will soon go from greenhouse to ground.

The property, which the ministry acquired 18 months ago from John Thornton Hilleary, White House gardener under President Lyndon B. Johnson, is preserved in perpetuity by the Maryland Environmental Trust and can only be used for agricultural purposes.

Allert has enlisted input from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension and Baltimore's Master Gardeners Club.

After touring the property, Kari Smith, assistant director of the Community Greening Stewardship, said, "To have this amount of acreage in the city is a real jewel, and to have someone so open to farming is fabulous. Growing and eating your own food offers fundamental life lessons in self-reliance."

Allert, who owns an Internet consulting business and is studying for the ministry, said the Samaritan Women's seeds in the ground will eventually help those who are most in need.

"Our big emphasis is reaching into the city with new life and energy," she said.

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