Anacostia's 'Urban Oasis'
Community Farm Thrives On Help of Neighborhood And Corporate Volunteers
By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 1999
It's only half an acre in size, but its sponsors call it the District's only working farm. Those green leaves rising from the dirt at "Urban Oasis," on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital, are growing into tomatoes, peppers, rosemary, marigolds, collards and kale.
This is a community garden with a goal: providing vegetables, herbs and flowers for people who live in Anacostia. Ward 8, which includes Anacostia, lost its last supermarket in October, a Safeway near St. Elizabeths. For the many neighborhood residents who do not own cars, it's a two- or three-mile bus or taxi ride to the nearest full-service market unless they go to small corner stores instead.
"It is not intended to be a full solution," said John Friedrich of Community Harvest, one of the farm's sponsors. "It's intended to provide fresh vegetables in an area that has little of them. . . . We want to show that you can grow vegetables in the city and inspire other people to do so."
The dirt is hoed, planted, weeded and watered by an amalgam of unpaid help--among them, residents of the Barry Farms public housing complex next door, high school students, homeless men from a nearby shelter, AmeriCorps members and teams of corporate volunteers organized by DC Cares. The farm, also sponsored by Garden Resources of Washington, uses land and greenhouse space donated by the city's Commission on Mental Health.
As Friedrich stood next to a row of kale explaining his mission, Preston Williams rushed over. He's one of the farm's most loyal volunteers, and he wanted Friedrich's opinion on which crop to plant in a newly dug and weeded row.
"It's a choice between sweet banana peppers and tomatoes," he told Friedrich.
"The choice is yours," Friedrich replied.
"I like tomatoes," Williams said.
That exchange illustrated a new way of doing things for the mini-farm, now in its second year in Southeast. Community opinion has a greater role in crop-planting decisions. Last year, Friedrich said, "we grew a ton of basil, but that's not popular in this community," so less of it was planted this year.
The garden is devoting more of its 50 raised beds to vegetables that Anacostia residents prefer, especially collard, mustard greens and kale. Garlic and some herbs also are being grown. Friedrich pointed to thyme, oregano and rosemary, planted in curving rows.
"We got tired of straight lines," Friedrich said. "We made a herb wave." Williams, who is 52 and lives in Northeast Washington, helps supervise the running of the garden. He lived in Barry Farms as a child and remembers sneaking over the fence to take apples from the St. Elizabeths orchard.
"I think I'm in the right place at the right time," he said. "I have a purpose now, and it's more than apples."
The farm was packed with seven dozen volunteers on a recent sunny Friday, most of them from Arthur Andersen & Co.'s tax preparation division. They wore matching T-shirts, admired the long views over the Anacostia River and talked about how the gardening was a team-building exercise for them.
In one group of five kneeling over a row, picking out weeds, only one--Tamara Williams, 24--had done much gardening before. "She digs up what we don't plant right," joked Sonia Amin, 25. "Weeding--that's the hard part," Williams said, yanking up unwanted greenery. "Planting is fun."
Nearby, Katharine Wainwright, 30, said she was enjoying herself "because I get to get dirty. It's so opposite of your urban professional life."
"At this hour, I'd normally be preparing tax returns," she said.
"Usually, we're staring at IRS compliance rules all day long."
The Arthur Andersen crews had been brought in by DC Cares, the umbrella volunteer group, for a community service day.
"People like this project because they can see the results of their work," said DC Cares organizer Susan Podolsky. "And after John talks to them, they understand how it's important to the community."
Friedrich is a former organizer for the national environmental group Clean Water Action who decided instead to focus his energies on local issues. Thus was born Community Harvest, which he founded and heads. Community Harvest's broader mission, he said, is to build "food security" for the region, which he hopes to do by providing both access to fresh food for city residents and places for local organic farmers to sell what they grow. (The farm uses no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.)
Ultimately, Friedrich hopes community residents will run the garden and make some money from it. Community Harvest is also encouraging other groups to open new farmers markets in city neighborhoods. A new weekly market was due to open yesterday at Union Temple in Anacostia, and Urban Oasis intends to sell most of its produce there.
The farm's other main sponsor, GROW, is involved with numerous community gardens across the city, but this one is special, said the group's director, Judy Tiger.
"It's not only horticulture and a hands-on day out of the office, but it's also a really beautiful place to get away to," she said. "People have a really strong need for open space. You can see it in their eyes when they get here."
Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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