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Mobtown Beat

City Pickers

Urban Farmers Toil in Parkland Soil

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 5/6/1998

It's a clement spring evening in Druid Hill Park. A boisterous group competes in a pickup softball game, couples stroll hand-in-hand along the lake side, gangs of giggling children romp and tumble on the expanses of lawn.

But park visitor Jeremy Walston is wrinkling his brow. He looks slightly troubled. Something, it seems, is eating his broccoli. Nearby, epidemiologist Ben Junge focuses his attention on a tray of tender squash seedlings, while electrical engineer Kate Carus shovels a pile of dark, decayed leaves out of a wheelbarrow.

This bucolic agricultural scene might seem out of place in an urban park. But along with producing fun and relaxation, Baltimore City parks also produce, well, produce. Thanks to the Department of Recreation and Parks' 20-year-old Baltimore City Farms Program, Baltimoreans with no earth of their own can rent a patch of parkland and become part-time farmers.

"It's a great escape from urban life," says Walston, a Johns Hopkins Hospital physician and five-year veteran of the program. "My father was a farmer; it's in my blood."

In addition to Druid Hill, City Farms gardens can be found in six other parks: Carroll, Leakin, Fort Holabird, Patterson, Clifton, and Dewees. All of the 150-square-foot plots (there are about 550) are currently being used; participants are allowed up to three parcels each. The annual rent is $14 per plot; water and free wood chips and decayed leaf mulch are included. A locked chain-link fence protects each site.

"It's a really popular program," City Farms coordinator Dawn Doran says. "We have participants from every racial, ethnic, and economic group--from doctors and professors to people who really need the produce they are growing to feed their families."

Baltimore is a city of rowhouses, and the backyards that come with those houses are often small and shady. And thousands of residents live in apartments, cut off from the ground altogether. For many participants, the City Farms Program is their only chance to toil in the soil.

"People have many reasons for signing up, but mostly it's because they lack room elsewhere," Doran says. "When you get three plots together, it's a pretty good size. Some people grow food for the churches and their families."

According to Doran, each of the garden locations has its own personality. The popular Druid Hill garden is probably the most eclectic and decorative, partly due to the number of artists who rent plots there. Among the more unusual plants grown at Druid Hill are hop vines (which one gardener uses to home brew beer) and such esoteric veggies as strawberry spinach and asparagus lettuce.

"If it looks interesting, I'll try it," says Carus, who together with her mother works five Druid Hill plots.

(There are also some interesting horticultural techniques at Druid Hill. One gardener uses castoff shag-carpet remnants to keep the weeds away from his potatoes.)

The Patterson Park farm has a more straightforward mix of vegetables, but it is pretty comprehensive.

"You name the plant, it's there," says retiree Dan Bochenek, a Patterson Park gardener for five years. "Right now I've got onions and some beautiful lettuce. But the old reliable tomato is probably the best. You can get big nice ones. . . . Mmm, I can't wait until we get the first ones."

To help spread the good tastes around, in midsummer the city sponsors a City Farms supper, a feast/party for all of the program participants that one gardener dubbed "the biggest potluck dinner in the world."

"It's my favorite Baltimore event," says Kim Donahue, a veteran Druid Hill gardener. "It's just a hoot. There's this incredibly diverse group of people, from yuppies to 70-year-olds, who all love to garden. It's just a very down-to-earth, Baltimore kind of event."

Along with tasting each other's produce, City Farms gardeners compete at the dinner for numerous prizes, from best garden to biggest tomato.

"There's a real team spirit within each of the gardens," says Donahue, who has won first prize for her carrots and Italian tomatoes.

Besides baskets of fresh food, the program produces some intangible benefits for many participants. Junge enjoys it for the opportunity just to "chill out and spend some time in the sun." Patterson Park gardener Cinder Hypki finds in the program "a wonderful community experience that's just very rich.

"There aren't a lot of places in our communities today where people of different generations and backgrounds have an opportunity to get together and share," says Hypki, who walks to her garden plots from her Upper Fells Point home. "It's pretty special."

Hypki says she's "learned an enormous amount" from the elderly Polish and Native American gardeners she's met at Patterson Park. "There a master gardening class you can take at Johns Hopkins, but I think being there with your hands in the dirt with these wonderful older people is better than any academic gardening course. . . .

"And," Hypki adds, "you get great tomatoes to boot."

To get on the waiting list for Baltimore City Farms Program gardening plots, call (410) 396-7839.

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