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City of Laurel Community Garden celebrates growth

By Sara Toth, stoth@tribune.com

June 6, 2013

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There is a whole world growing behind Laurel Presbyterian Church these days.

In the lot about the size of a football field, local residents are growing together as they tend their plots in the City of Laurel Community Garden. On Saturday, June 1, the community turned out for a celebration of sorts with an open house and breakfast with Laurel City Council members. Dozens were on hand to witness the growth that has taken place in the lot, home to 62 garden plots, in just the past few weeks.

Dawn Williams, of Laurel, is a member of the University of Maryland extension program Maryland Master Gardeners and was one of the chief organizers behind the garden. She said the city tilled the property at the end of March, and people started planting soon after, most following the Mother's Day rule for when to plant summer crops. Williams said there's still about 10 plots left, and plenty of people ready and willing to help novice gardeners.

"We've come a long way," Williams said. "We have lots of different gardening styles and lots of different people gardening. When you have all kinds of people here, it's a good way to build a community. That's so important."

The garden is growing in more ways than one: Organizers have reached an agreement with Laurel Presbyterian to expand the garden into another area behind the church, creating an "l" shape.

On Saturday, representatives from the city along with Laurel Regional Hospital and the Prince George's Herbal Society were on hand to laud the gardeners' efforts, and to discuss the importance of nutrition and healthy lifestyles. It's all part of the community garden's mission, Williams said.

"We're promoting gardening and this garden as a healthy force in the community," she said. "That's what it boils down to: healthier lifestyles, healthier eating habits and teaching the kids where their food comes from, changing their relationship with their food. It all starts with the kids."

As such, the garden includes two children's plots, where local youngsters are encouraged to water and weed. Children also helped construct two scarecrows to watch over the growing garden.

For those kids, however, Saturday wasn't about the open house or the celebration that ensued: it was about playing in the dirt as they usually do.

"I like this place," said Ariana Noel, 6, a first-grader at Montpelier Elementary. "I like how fun it is. You can grow all your own food. There's food in there — or, it's not food yet, but it will be."

Ariana's older sister, Nailah, 8, a second-grader at Heather Hill Elementary magnet school in Bowie, said eating the food after it had finished growing was the best part of gardening.

"More kids should be doing this," she said. "It doesn't waste your time, like if you stay in the house all weekend. Instead, you can come out to the garden and water your plants and it's not a waste of time."

Ariana and Nailah's mother, Hazel Noel, of Laurel, purchased a plot after seeing the garden advertised in the Laurel Health Food Store on Main Street. She's been bringing her children to the garden for several weeks now.

"I just wanted my children to experience gardening," she said. "I have four children and two grandchildren, and I want them to see the food, pick the food. When you don't live in the country, I believe, you don't get to see that. Children only see the supermarket and I want them to see this is where your food comes from. These are the seeds and if you work hard, you can grow this."

Besides, Noel said, it's "beautiful family time" for her and her kids. Right now, she's growing broccoli, cabbage, beans, scallions, onions, garlic, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, lettuce, basil, thyme and okra. But, Ariana mused "I want to put more green beans in there."

Some who attended Saturday's event had never heard of the garden until recently, let alone ever gardened. Tom McGraw saw a sign posted along Old Sandy Spring Road advertising the open house and decided to check it out.

"I need to eat more vegetables, anyway," he said. "I have no good experience gardening. All of my plants die. I'm an agricultural basket case. So this is here to save me."

McGraw plans to buy a plot to share with a friend and the friend's son. The sense of community appeals to him, he said.

"It's a great way for people to meet in a common area and have a common goal," he said.

Community is possibly the most important thing growing in the garden, said Edith Butler, a member of Prince George's Master Gardeners, who is a Laurel resident and a plot owner herself.

"We're redefining community in Laurel," she said. "People are meeting people they've never met before and they're uniting for the common good, taking care of each other's gardens when they need it. This is an expression of the people."