Mbazang is part of a swelling group of Washingtonians who grow produce in the city’s 68 community gardens, which offer free plots of fertile land. Many gardens have years-long waitlists and have become even more in-demand during the pandemic, as people are stuck at home, and many are looking for new, healthy hobbies.
Jeff McQueen, 63, hadn’t gardened in many years but started growing squash and cabbage in May near Mbazang’s plot at Blair.
“After the novelty of being in quarantine wore off and the pandemic wore on, I started to look for something to fill the isolated life,” McQueen said. “It felt good to be around people. I soon found out gardeners are very friendly folk.”
The gardening market has been experiencing a boom from new gardeners such as McQueen.
“It’s been a landslide compared with past years,” said Niraj Ray, 34, founder and CEO of Cultivate the City, a company that promotes urban farming in D.C. “In previous years, it usually took us to July 4 to break even. This year it was April.”
Tommy Wells, director of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, said the city is constantly looking for new places to expand urban agriculture to meet demand, which has jumped markedly in the pandemic.
He said he is working to “identify more property that could be used as community gardens” and is also coordinating with the National Park Service to find small pocket parks owned by the federal government that locals could cultivate.
Deborah Williams has tended her plot at the Fort Greble Community Garden on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave in Southwest Washington for three years. She said growing her own produce, such as spinach, tomatoes and carrots, has given her a new respect for farmers and a greater understanding of what it means for food to be organic.
Williams, 39, grew up in Pittsburgh surrounded by trees and rose bushes her mother planted around their house. She said she hopes to get more young and middle-aged people engaged in growing their own food and counter the idea that gardening is for older people, which she once believed.
At her sister-in-law’s suggestion, Williams took an online gardening course over the summer through Louisiana State University.
Williams is confident that the produce she’s feeding her family is healthy and safe.
“It’s my seed, my carrot, my pan. It doesn’t get any more organic than that,” she said.
Like all community gardens in the District, Fort Greble allows only organic farming, prohibiting the use of nonorganic fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide or fungicide.
Gardening in the District goes way back in the city’s history.
The University of the District of Columbia was founded in 1851 with the mandate to make higher education available to all, originally with a focus on agriculture.
Today, the university’s Center for Sustainable Development & Resilience continues to reach out to Washingtonians like Williams who are passionate about producing healthy food locally. The university offers free online gardening classes.
Dwane Jones, acting dean of the center, said it is still part of UDC’s mission to help grow and distribute nutritious food in an urban environment.
“We offer education on launching, producing, growing, preparing, distributing and using waste as a resource in those gardens,” he said.
Since 1967, the university and the Smithsonian Institution have together operated a 50-acre farm in Beltsville, Md., called Firebird Research Farm. The farm tests the viability and market potential of crops and compares them with similar products available locally.
Several West African fruits and vegetables were found to grow well in the D.C. region, including avuvo, a nutritious leafy green similar to kale; jute leaf, which is reminiscent of okra; and waterleaf, which is similar to spinach.
Over the summer, Jones’s students tested the popularity of the produce at prototype farmers markets in the Riggs Park, Washington Highlands and Capitol View neighborhoods. The African produce sold well, and his students will soon publish a comparative study with their findings.
Mbazang grows waterleaf at Blair Road Community Garden, along with tomatoes and okra, which she also grew in Cameroon.
“I had a simple garden back home,” said Mbazang. “We had big land, with many places to plant.”
She uses the waterleaf to make stews that remind her of home. She’ll serve them with starches like fufu, yams or plantains, like she did in Cameroon. Before the end of the season, she freezes surplus waterleaf in gallon bags to use during the winter.
Blair Road is one of the city’s largest gardens, spanning more than five acres. When Mbazang is tending to her garden, she’ll see Julia Hill several plots over.
Hill, 76, grew up on a farm in South Carolina, where she learned how to grow produce. But she didn’t pick up a hand trowel for decades until a friend convinced her to join Blair 10 years ago. She said she was glad she did, both for the therapy of digging in the dirt and also for the healthy food.
Like many of the 200 gardeners at Blair, Hill cans or freezes the tomatoes, lima beans, peas and okra she grows between early March and late October.
“You have to put in the work to get what you want,” she said.
Some gardens also have family-friendly communal plots. The SW Community Gardens, near Nationals Park, opened in 2013 with a combination of individual and communal plots. It recently added a “digging bed” filled with dirt and beach sand toys.
“To be honest, I’ve been surprised how endlessly entertaining this is for the kids. They’ll make moats, dirt beds, castles, all kinds of things,” said Coy McKinney, 34, who coordinates the communal section of the garden.
The origins of D.C.’s 68 community gardens vary. Blair Community Garden started on federal land as a victory garden during World War I for families to feed themselves while commercially grown food was sent to soldiers abroad. Newer gardens are generally built with neighborhood and philanthropic support. Southwest Community Gardens was built in a single afternoon in 2012 by local and corporate volunteers. They were supported with $50,000 worth of lumber and tools and from Project Orange Thumb, a grant from the Fiskars tool company and the Home Depot Foundation.
Caroline Green, who works for the Fiskars Group, said the company’s grant program awards $50,000 in garden tools across the United States and Canada each year. She estimated that it costs about $2,500 to start a community garden, depending on its size and plants.
In D.C., water, typically a significant expense for a community garden, is provided by the city, explained Josh Singer, community garden specialist for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. Each community garden chooses how to purchase resources. Some charge dues to buy compost and tools, while others have no fees and members are responsible for their own supplies. A gardener’s annual budget can be a few hundred dollars, but free supplies are also available through the city and local organizations.
There are grants and free workshops, but “many people don’t know they exist,” Singer said.
Ray started Cultivate the City in 2015 as a for-profit gardening organization.
Cultivate the City sells produce such as strawberries and collard greens grown in five urban farms around the District. Much of their produce is grown vertically in vegetable towers that Ray developed to save space. Their H Street urban farm runs gardening classes and sells vegetable towers, hydroponic gardening supplies and other tools to grow food in small, urban spaces. It’s located on the roof of the hardware store W.S. Jenks & Son in Northeast Washington, which also sells Ray’s plants.
For Ray, the goal of community gardening is to help people rethink how they use land and where their food comes from. For him, the pandemic has been a huge opportunity to do that.
“Our main goal is education: teaching people how to activate whatever space they have to grow their own food,” he said.