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Community Gardening in DC Promoting Social Activism, Nutrition, Learning, Understanding

Accompanying images can be viewed in the May 2017 issue pdf

 By Larry Ray*

 Community gardening is a huge trend in the District of Columbia. The DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) asserts it oversees more than 30 of these gardens. Why is this? Is it an act of social activism?; is it an environmental act?; does it promote social cohesion?; is it simply a desire for good-tasting food?

DPR lists 34 community gardens and five urban farms. The wait list is long. DC Public Schools have more than 190 gardens. The DC Urban Gardeners Network lists a total of 69 community gardens and 23 urban farms. Another option is offered through the Growing Food, Growing Community Intergenerational Gardening Program run by Age-Friendly DC, DPR, and Recreation, and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education which connects residents of all ages and abilities who want to garden with spaces and opportunities to do so. Information about how to participate in this program can be had by contacting the office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services’ Age-Frienly DC Initiative.

Community gardening may be viewed as a subset of Urban Gardening. Today, approximately 15% of food worldwide is grown in urban centers. This includes restaurants growing herbs on their rooftops. The benefits? Freshness, sustainability, access to quality food and quality of life.

In the University of South Florida’s 2009 Masters degree thesis by Joshua Birky, “The modern community garden movement in the United States: Its roots, its current condition and its prospects for the future,” he traces the nationwide  and DC community gardening trend back to British gardens. He posits that the U.S. reached a zenith for community gardening in the 1940s (no doubt due to the push for “victory gardens” for increased food production during World War II), but the trend began again in the 1970s. He believes it will be sustainable since the movement did not start from a major catalyst, but many unconnected catalysts spurred on by nonprofits and various public and private entities.

Columbia Heights Green Community Garden

This newly created nonprofit park has an interesting history. Located within the block bounded by between 11th Street, Sherman Avenue, Park Road and Lamont Street, NW and accessible only through the alleys, this was a nuisance property for 40 years. First, it was falling down garages, then illegal car repair, then drugs and finally dumping. DC government had to take some action on a monthly basis.

Then, in 2010, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for this area contacted Steve Coleman, Executive Director of Washington Parks and People (WPP) with the idea of creating a small neighborhood park. WPP embraced the idea. Some persons believed they had legal claims to the land so they needed to be persuaded to give up their interest to the non-profit WPP, which they did. WPP and the ANC worked with former Ward One Councilmember Jim Graham to obtain funds to finance the work to reclaim the land.  [Ed. Note: We first reported on this project on page 1 of the September 2010 issue.]

Today, the spot is beautiful. One enters through an arched trellis covered with wisteria. To the north are beehives and butterfly bushes. In the center are bales of hay where teachers bring children to learn about gardening. To the south are the community gardens.

Some of the expenses for the garden come from renting parking spaces to Zipcar and ParkQuiz.

This is what is called a collaborative community  garden, a place where members of the community can come together to help each other grow and prosper. By setting up a garden in a central location where neighbors can have easy access, this makes it possible for those who   don’t have the extra money needed to buy freshly grown produce the opportunity to have healthy and fresh food in their homes.

Bruce-Monroe Park

Established in 2011, Bruce Monroe Community Garden is situated inside Bruce Monroe Park, located off the west side of Georgia Avenue between Irving Street and Columbia Road, a short walk from the Columbia Heights Metro station. The garden occupies the rear (western) portion of the park, away from the bustle of Georgia Avenue.

Comprised of raised beds mainly divided into nearly 200 three by six-foot plots, individuals and families maintain these and shared plots are looked after by groups of gardeners.

Garden Coordinator Mohammed said, “I believe the Shared Beds Program is one of the sacred programs of the . . . garden. Over the years this program has allowed us to help the community in the best possible way we could, especially the children [who have their own plots lower to the ground].”

It was in 2008 that the DC Council had initially approved the Park Morton plan to develop this large block’s western half abutting Georgia Avenue with the goal of integrating this project into the larger Park View/Petworth community. This $37 million project included some governmental funding.

Twin Oaks, 14th Street Heights Community Garden

Established in 2010 and operated by DPR, this garden is used by 100 gardeners, has five beehives and a compost network. The garden serves the neighborhoods of Petworth, Columbia Heights and 14th Street Heights in the shadow of the Washington Hospital Center. Presently, it consists two sections — north and south. Users were upset to learn last year that the north section will be taken over by a parking lot to accommodate 44 cars; 38 spots, however, are to be made available at DPR’s  Upshur Garden at 14th and Upshur Streets, NW.

Wangari Community Garden

Many neighbors were not aware that this 2.7 acres is a  community garden consisting of 50 fruit trees and plots dedicated to the cultivation of vegetables, herbs, berries, and medicinals.

Located just west of the Washington Hospital Center, between Irving Street and Park Place and south of Kenyon Street, Wangari Gardens is named after Professor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai.

A citizen of Kenya, she founded the Green Belt Movement which spread all over East Africa and worldwide. She was an environmentalist and social justice peace activist who empowered mainly women to plant more than 47 million trees.

School Community Gardens

There is a national trend towards school community gardens. DC has joined this trend with more than 127 of its 233 schools having such gardens. In 2010 the DC Council enacted the Healthy Schools Act. Among its provisions     was authorization for creating outdoor classrooms in the form of working teaching gardens.

Facilitating this endeavor is the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education which provides grants to schools to create gardens.

REAL School Gardens, a nonprofit that helps to create school gardens in Texas, Maryland, Virginia and DC, reports that as a result of gardening activities overall student scores show an increase between 12 and 15%. And 94% of the teachers interviewed agreed that students are more engaged, leading to greater academic success.

Ward One’s State Board of Education member Laura Wilson Phelan summarizes the benefits of school gardening: “School community gardening offers students a wonderful opportunity to practice skills and thinking critical to success later in life. Students experience hands-on science related to biology when they plant seeds, observe their growth, and care for plants. Students also learn to troubleshoot when a plant isn’t responding to their care and understand how to incorporate healthy foods into their diet. All of these elements help students learn and grow. I’m not sure that I would name this social activism, but rather high-quality educational experiences. Students learn best when they have hands-on opportunities to apply what they are learning, and gardening provides a great example of this.”

When asked what inspired the creation of Tubman Elementary School’s  community garden, Principal Amanda Delabar asserted that the school wanted to help children understand where food actually come from:

“We want children to think about growing their own food and cooking fresh vegetables. We want them to try new things and feel accomplished planting seeds and watching plants grow and produce vegetables or fruit they can eat.

“There is a strong connection between gardening and school learning. There are so many science connections. The technical pieces like how does a seed become a plant and produce fruits or vegetables and how does weather impact that to environmental lessons like how to chemicals harm valuable insects, what are valuable insects, how do pollinators work and what is important for soil health. Kindergartners have explored monarch butterflies and how they help plants and how humans have impacted them and second grade can fully explain the process of photosynthesis. I believe this technical knowledge will serve students and our community well, and the knowledge about our food and ecosystem will prove invaluable to our society moving forward.

“Parents love community gardening. They want their students to learn and interact with the gardening. We have two different garden clubs and also support teachers with incorporating the garden into their units and lessons. Parents are excited about their kids trying new things which they are more willing to do when they have grown these things.

Restaurants Farm to Table

Surely restaurants are part of the community and many are establishing their own gardens. Chef Mike Friedman of The Red Hen in Bloomingdale is one example. Over in Northeast’s Ivy City neighborhood, Gravitas restaurant which is scheduled to open in September is spending over a $100,000 on their rooftop garden.

Chef Matt Baker is on the board of Brainfood. Brainfood is a nonprofit with three locations — Columbia Heights, Chinatown and Mt. Vernon Square. Brainfood uses the power of food to “engage, empower and employ” DC teens. Brainfood’s community partners include Whole Foods and Union Market.

Gravitas’ chef and owner Matt Baker reports the restaurant’s rooftop garden will participate in Brainfood’s program of education for young adults. “Once we are fully growing we are hoping there will also be donation opportunities for the community from the garden, offering fresh produce and herbs. We are still in the very early stages of the construction so will not be up and running for a few months.”

Restaurant gardens are not new. The first in DC was at Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle, which opened in 1979. Nora Pouillon, who will be retiring and closing her establishment — much to the consternation of loyal patrons and neighbors — on June 30, is a self-taught, Austrian-born chef who guided her restaurant to become DC’s first certified organic; the front yard garden provides the herbs enhancing the menu’s offerings. Of the ingredients used, 95% come from certified organic and biodynamic growers.


In 1979 the American Community Gardening Association  <> was formed with a mission “to build community by increasing and enhancing community gardening and greening.” It provides training in fundraising, leadership development and organizing as well as environmental education. Its Garden Mosaic program which links youth and experienced gardeners is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation.

So, whether community gardening is a sign of social activism, meditation, desire for excellent fresh food hobby, or student learning stimulant, most agree that this is a great idea. Whether the District government will actively seek out unused vacant lots that could at least temporarily be used for community gardening is an open question at this time.

*Larry Ray, a resident of Columbia Heights and former ANC commissioner for Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, has also served as President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association. An arbitrator and mediator, he has been providing training and assistance to the Tubman Elementary School Peer Mediation Program.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.