- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Mr. Bigelow, 66 — often dressed like a farmer in jeans, a white T-shirt and black suspenders — learned the art of farming from his tobacco-growing grandfather when he was a young boy outside Burlington, N.C.
Six decades later, his "field" of greens is smack in the middle of a Northeast neighborhood where young men walk in groups and sirens go off every five minutes. In this high-energy environment, Mr. Bigelow and a dozen other black men, most of them retired, have created their own oasis where they sit and talk, have an occasional beer and plant and harvest flowers and vegetables.
"I'm here all the time. And when people call and I'm not home, my wife says, 'He's not home, he's in the office,' which means I'm right here," Mr. Bigelow says, pointing to the dirt path between plots.
"This is the greatest hobby I could have," he says. "I love to see things grow."
The type of garden Mr. Bigelow, who is the coordinator for Binders Garden on 13th and E streets NE, and his fellow part-time farmers tend is called a community garden. There are more than 40 of its kind in the District, ranging in size from Mr. Bigelow's approximately eight-plot garden to Glover Archbold Gardens in NW, which has 162 plots and about 250 part-time farmers.
Most of the gardens are on public land, and plot holders pay a small fee to a coordinator for annual maintenance. The part-time farmers also are responsible for all the seeds, soil and fertilizers they need to grow a bountiful garden.
If the land is private, a lease agreement is issued, and the gardeners sometimes have to provide liability insurance.
The cost differs among the gardens, but is never higher than $30 a year per person, says Judy Tiger, executive director of GROW, Garden Resources of Washington. This nonprofit organization in the District helps residents locate existing community gardens or start new ones.
Community gardening is a growing trend across the nation. New York has 1,906 community gardens, Philadelphia has 1,135, and San Francisco has 131, while the District has 44, according to the National Gardening Association, based in South Burlington, Vt. Nationwide, the number of community gardens has increased by 22 percent in the past five years.
The reason the number of community gardens has not grown dramatically in the District is because the amount of vacant land has been limited here, Mrs. Tiger says.
"But I would say we have at least 2,000 plots here," she says.
Each garden is operated independently and has its own bylaws and rules concerning such matters as unkept gardens and annual fees.
On a recent morning across town in Glover Archbold community garden in Northwest, a half-dozen of the 162 plots stirred with activity as seniors, seemingly from all around the globe, tended to their gardens.
Chinese-born Pauline Yang, who is retired and lives in Northwest, was hosing a Budweiser can in an attempt to kill wasps trapped in it. They had previously stung her.
Armenian-born Ashot Hofsian, another Northwest resident, wore his khaki pants tucked into his long white socks to stay mud-free. He was inspecting his perfectly-cared-for 600-square-foot plot, which includes squash, blackberries, beets and leeks.
"I make pickled beets for myself," says Mr. Hofsian, who is a retired accountant and has gardened at Glover for 17 years, "and I am making preserves with the blackberries. I mix them with blueberries."
Ernesto Vergara, originally from the Philippines, spends several hours a day in his garden, whose narrow paths he has paved with planks and bricks so his shoes won't get muddy.
He lives across the street in one of the high-rises that border the gardens on one side. On the other side, Glover Park's wild nature lines the gardens.
Mr. Vergara, whose father had a citrus orchard in the Philippines, says he has been influenced by his Southeast Asian background and prepares vegetables a bit differently from others.
"I use the leaves of sweet potato and squash," he says. "I make salads or I saute. It's very good."
Glover and other community gardens in the District which on weekends fill with young people, too and elsewhere were set up during World War II as victory gardens to enable city residents to become more self-sufficient while canned and other goods were rationed.
In 1944, as much as 42 percent of the nation's vegetable production was grown in victory gardens, according to the National Gardening Association.
Even today, many of the part-time farmers are self-sufficient when it comes to vegetables. Often friends, family and churches become recipients of their surplus.
Mr. Hofsian gives about two-thirds of what he harvests to an Armenian Apostolic church in Northwest. Mr. Bigelow gives his surplus to Springfield Baptist Church, also in Northwest.
Cutting food costs is one benefit of the community gardening, but there are many others, its advocates say.
"It's meditative, it's healthful you build relationships you get fresh air there's a sense of pride and well-being. You get all of that in gardening," Mrs. Tiger says.
George Vest, 82, a former U.S. ambassador to the European Community (predecessor of the European Union) headquarters in Brussels and a current gardener at Glover Archbold, says gardening helped him cope with high-stress jobs.
"I don't know anything that's a better antidote for pressure than gardening," says Mr. Vest, a Bethesda resident. "The vegetables didn't complain and didn't worry about their salaries," he says and smiles.
Mr. Vest, who has a bad back, has what he calls "the lazy man's garden." It has large flower and vegetable beds bordered by ledges that allow him to sit down on either the ledge or on a board placed between the beds while planting, weeding and harvesting.
Community gardens are open to anyone, skilled gardener and novice alike. It is not necessary to be a resident of the community where the garden is located. With their increasing popularity, though, it can be difficult to get a plot, and many of the gardens have waiting lists.
Mary Sabatos, coordinator at Glover Archbold, says it takes about a year to get a plot. Karin Adams, coordinator at Melvin-Hazen Garden, also a former victory garden in Northwest, says it takes one to two years to get a spot. Mr. Bigelow says he has no idea when a spot might come open at Binders Garden. His is an old-time crew whose members are unlikely to move.
If a specific area lacks a community garden, it's possible to create one if vacant land is available. It takes planning, evaluating and preparing a site, setting up a gardening association, possibly providing insurance, and establishing bylaws and rules, according to the American Community Gardening Association.
For those who need assistance in this often time-consuming endeavor, GROW is there to help, Mrs. Tiger says. GROW also can help people locate an already established community garden close by.
While being on a waiting list or in the process of creating a community garden challenges anyone's patience, garden lovers say it's well worth the work and wait. There is nothing like being able to harvest and prepare your own vegetables and finding that calm that only gardening brings, they say.
"This is just a heavenly place to have," Mr. Vest says.
For more information, contact the Garden Resources of Washington at 202/234-0591.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide