Little Idea Sprouts, Big Garden Project Grows In Murray Hill

April 23, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Eliza Toomey's backyard is about the size of a postage stamp, and it is bathed in shadows cast by a thick canopy of trees.

Clearly, if she were to have a vegetable garden, it would have to be planted in someone else's yard.

So she passed out fliers, had a meeting and, now, Toomey is planting vegetables in the backyards of 21 of her neighbors in Murray Hill in Annapolis.

The 25-year-old middle school teacher is planting the seeds and the seedlings and, though she is asking for a little help with watering, she will care for the gardens, harvest the vegetables and distribute the bounty to her 21 new friends every week this summer.

"It was just another one of my ideas that starts out little and before you know it ... ," said Toomey.

That's how she ended up leaving Bethesda for college in Scotland. She thought it was an interesting idea and so she did a little research, filled out a form and, before she knew what happened, she was on a plane to Glasgow.

Her project, Row-by-Row, has been done before in the history of community gardens. Homeowners have given up their lawn to farmers before. "But there hasn't been the community," Toomey said.

She thought about growing vegetables in a public space, but rejected the idea out of concern for vandalism. With the gardens in private yards, there is security and a little help. Some of her gardeners are quite experienced and she's learning from them.

Best of all, she says, "My people are growing for each other."

Already one potluck dinner is planned for the 21 families to get to know each other, and Toomey hopes for other community-building events.

She really didn't know what to expect when she passed out 400 fliers in the neighborhood. Murray Hill is perhaps the oldest and wealthiest community in the city of Annapolis. Socialized vegetable gardening might not go over well. "I thought maybe six people would show up at the meeting," she said.

"It was a shocker," she said when more than 20 people showed up at 49 West, a coffee shop. There almost wasn't room for them all and more had sent word that they couldn't make the meeting but wanted to sign up.

Now her "garden" includes a few square feet of sugar snap peas in the backyard of a single family home, carved out of a spot just beyond the porch. And broccoli rabe in the formal planter garden behind perhaps the grandest home in the neighborhood on historic Acton Place.

And everywhere in between, spanning the whole of Murray Hill from Lafayette Street to Bates Middle School.

And she has found all kinds of conditions in which she must garden. Some spots have been gardened before and the soil is rich and loamy.

"In other places, I could sell it as Play-Doh," she said. But she makes her own organic fertilizer and is using her own compost. (That's about all she can do in her tiny, shady backyard. Although, ever the optimist, she has planted some edamame there, too.)

Each homeowner paid $35 to join the project and they will pay $10 a week for the harvest. If my math is correct, Toomey will "earn" less than a dollar an hour for her work this summer.

Every home is assigned a single crop. Some will have spring greens or peas, others will have pumpkins or watermelons and still others will have tomatoes, peppers or squash. In the kitchen of Toomey's tiny Murray Hill row house - which is no more than a broom handle across - she has squeezed in stainless-steel shelving and fluorescent lighting and trays of seedlings ready to go in the ground.

Next year, Toomey hopes to expand to another neighborhood and plant both a spring and summer crop in each yard.

She won't be teaching then. She will be gardening and perhaps baking. She wants a simple, self-sustained life for herself and, though it is hard to see how gardening in 21 different places while pulling a cart behind your bike makes your life simpler, she is both inspired by and content with her project.

"I didn't want to leave anybody out because they didn't have good soil or enough sun," she said. "This is more about seeing what you can do with the space you have."

Even when it is someone else's space.

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