Day said she expects a decision "in the near future."

Thomas, who lives with his wife on Ash Street, said that Baltimore Free Farm, founded in 2010, won a volunteer service award from the governor's office and a Best Vegetable Garden award from the Baltimore City Master Gardeners, both in 2012.

Thomas also said the group has benefited from supporters like the late Paul Pojman, a Towson University philosophy professor, who owned the house where Thomas now lives. Pojman, who died of lung cancer at age 45 in 2012, bought the house to help Baltimore Free Farm grow, and leased it to the group, which is now trying to buy it from Pojman's estate, Thomas said.

Many of Baltimore Free Farm's seedlings are in other community gardens, and students from area public schools and colleges visit Ash Street Garden often on field trips, Thomas said.

The group is creating a vibe that people from all walks of life are drawn to as volunteers and even as residents, he said.

"There are people moving into the neighborhood to be close to this," said the bearded Thomas, who wore one of Pojman's old T-shirts while tending the composting bin June 19. "We're not just oatmeal-eating people," he said. "The city needs to look at us as professionals. We have a vision for developing (the site) that is practical for the neighborhood. This is not just our farm. It's everybody's farm."

Helpful controversy

Thomas said the city, which champions sustainability, must decide "what kind of development the city wants to see in the neighborhoods. Does that development always have to look like new houses?"

Hampden Village Merchants Association President Benn Ray, said he supports Baltimore Free Farm, an association member, in its bid to keep using the land.

"It would be a shame if the city decided to sell it out from under them," Ray said.

Baltimore Free Farm members admit that losing the Baldwin Street lots won't make or break the garden, and that the controversy is helpful to them in publicizing the group and its workshops.

"Basically, we want to be a model in the city as far as learning how to grow your own food," Hooton said.