Space to grow: Residents invest in community garden model

2018-08-24 | Frederick News-Post

Aug. 24--As seniors downsize and developers build homes on smaller lots, Frederick County residents have looked beyond their backyards for places to grow.

One of the places they have found is the community garden at Ballenger Creek Park. There, the county Department of Parks and Recreation offers seasonal rentals for $67 a plot, in which gardeners are free to cultivate vegetables, berries and flowers from March 15 to Oct. 31.

"It's something that was relatively easy to design and put together," said Bob Hicks, deputy director of parks and recreation.

The garden was established around 2013 as part of an initiative by the Board of County Commissioners, he said. Park staff put some initial momentum behind the project -- selecting a flat site with water and vehicle access -- but after its first year, the garden took on a life of its own with people returning and newcomers joining each season without much hands-on work by the department.

Among the first-time community gardeners this season is Rachel Sanger, 35, who found time in her schedule to join the garden this summer as her children have begun to age out of water parks and daily activities that once kept her busy.

Sanger is an avid flower gardener and has filled the front and back yards of her town house with perennial flowers during the past 15 years. But now, she's out of space.

To try her hand at vegetables, she decided to rent a plot at Ballenger Creek Park. She planted squash, cantaloupes, eggplants, cucumbers and sweet potatoes. She also started lettuce and spinach at her house, but it didn't survive the transplant.

Sanger grew up in gardens, helping her grandfather pick tomatoes and her mother work in a large garden in Pennsylvania. But none of her friends garden like she does, which is another reason she looked beyond her own backyard for a place to grow her food and make acquaintances.

"Some people keep to themselves, but most people overall are really friendly," said Sanger, who has chatted with a few women and gentlemen who also have plots at the garden.

However, the "community" in community gardening is what seems to be missing in Ballenger Creek Park, said Jim Baish, 63, who has been participating for the past three years.

Baish currently lives in an apartment in the city of Frederick, but a few years ago, he was living in Rockville and craving a piece of land to cultivate. He became involved with the King Farm Community Garden, which is a volunteer-run garden that structures events and work days into the season so the growers are highly encouraged to get to know one another.

Frederick County mows the grass between the plots and maintains the communal water line, which puts less of a burden on the gardeners but also offers less opportunities for them to come together as a community, he said.

"There's good and bad points to either," Baish said.

But as town houses are built closer together -- and yards almost nonexistent in "alley town house" designs -- it is becoming more apparent that communal green spaces are important amenities, just like a pool or tennis court, said Baish, who also owns Land Planning and Design Group and works as a landscape architect and planner in Frederick County.

Baish also knows this from experience, having downsized from 1 acre in Ijamsville, to Rockville, to an apartment in Frederick and each time losing a little more of his access to growing space. The same goes for residents living in apartments and condos in Frederick County right now, and he estimated that more people are in a situation similar to his and not being recognized by the county.

Despite this, there is no intention to expand the community garden at Ballenger Creek Park or any other park in Frederick County.

"It's popular for the people who participate ... but it's not enough that we're expanding," said Hicks, who noted the county did have the ability to move the fence outwards and add plots if the need surfaced.

Generally, the county is able to accommodate all the gardeners interested in plots, or it places the gardeners on a short waitlist, eventually accepting them the following season.

"You want something that's always active," Hicks said.

This season, not all the plots have seen the same level of activity, said Kelly McCutcheon, 52, a first-time gardener at Ballenger Creek Park.

"Some beds look kind of abandoned," McCutcheon said, though it's been a tough season with rain and weeds.

McCutcheon stumbled across the community garden last year while walking through the park with a friend, and decided to sign up this season because of a lack of space at her home. She tried gardening in containers on her patio, but it wasn't the right size or conditions for her.

Currently, she has tomatoes, peppers, jalapeños and strawberries in her plot, but the real star are her zinnias, which she threw in haphazardly and have since taken over the majority of the bed.

"They just exploded," McCutcheon said.

For her, the most interesting parts of being a member of the garden are the ideas it has given her. McCutcheon works as a graphic designer and sells buttons and jewelry on an Etsy shop called eyecandybykelly. She was inspired by one woman's use of painted rocks to delineate where she had planted different plants.

Overall, her experience has been positive.

"I really had no idea what to expect," McCutcheon said. "I didn't shop around."

There is room for improvement, Baish said. He added that he would like to see a lock added to the garden fence, to which only the gardeners would have the code in order to deter people unaffiliated with the garden from picking the produce. At the King Farm Community Garden, it was easier to self-police because everyone knew each other's faces and names, he said.

This season, he has nudged one thief out, and last year, two. It's not rampant, but it would help make the garden more secure, he said.

Some of the gardeners could also be more diligent about weeding, which -- if left to go to seed -- will blow into other plots.

Sanger estimated about one-third of the gardeners are very mindful of weeds, another third let their plots go, and the final third are somewhere in the middle. She hasn't tried to report anyone, but she wished the county would inspect the plots and give warnings, so that unused plots could be opened to the waitlist.

"There's always room to grow and more things to learn and try," Sanger said.

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