City officials, local Master Gardeners and community gardening enthusiasts are planning a community garden for Laurel, set to open for the spring 2013 planting season.
"We're trying to change the whole relationship with food," said Dawn Williams, a Master Gardener spearheading the project.
"You hear so much about buying local," she said. "Just think what a difference it'd make if people grew their own food in their backyard, in a community garden."
The garden is now in its "paperwork phase," Williams said. Officials from Laurel's Parks and Recreation Citizens Advisory Committee and members of a new Community Garden Committee are considering potential plots for the garden, and will be framing budgets and plot maps in the upcoming months.
"We have some ideas, and we're exploring all of them," said Laurel City Council member Fred Smalls, another driving force behind the community garden project.
"I think this will be a win-win for everyone," he said.
Smalls named the top three priorities in choosing a site for the Laurel garden as accessibility, on-site water and security.
Officials are considering both city-owned and private property sites for Laurel's garden, which is currently proposed to hold around 30 plots of roughly 20 feet by 20 feet each.
Williams is looking to Columbia Gardeners Inc., a nonprofit group with three community gardens and more than 600 members, as a model for planning Laurel's community garden. The group began almost 40 years ago, providing a rich background of trail-and-error improvements.
"We can learn from their mistakes," Williams said.
Columbia Gardeners historian Mary Gold offered this advice to Laurel's Community Garden Committee: Have an on-site water source, and ensure that the garden site will be permanent.
Gold added that a convenient location with plenty of parking is important for a community garden.
While vandalism is an occasional problem, vagrant deer are the biggest culprits behind lost produce, she said. Fences around 100 of the Columbia garden plots have helped remedy this problem, according to Columbia Gardeners president Clyde Pyers. He suggested an "adequate fence" for the Laurel garden.
"And when I say adequate, I mean sufficient to keep the deer out," Pyers said.
Even with this foresight, each garden is different and will encounter its own problems.
"You sort of evolve as you go along," Gold said.
City officials and Laurel citizens agree that one of the community garden's primary roles will be to unite citizens.
"I think it will bring a lot of people together who may not even realize they're neighbors yet," Laurel City Administrator Kristie Mills said of the proposed garden.
In Columbia, gardeners from Korea, Russia, Latin America and other areas work side-by-side in the city's gardens.
Some use the garden to grow produce they cannot find in U.S. stores, and neighboring gardeners often take notice, expanding their plots to include new food they see in the garden, Gold said.
"That's part of the educational process. You see what other cultures do in the garden, and you can't help but learn," Pyers said.
School groups and birders tour Columbia's community gardens, and Master Gardeners use the sites as learning tools for new members.
Like Columbia, Laurel plans to use part of the space in its garden to grow produce for those in need.
"There are all kinds of side things that go on besides just growing food," Gold said.
'A certain satisfaction'
Producing their own food also gives people a sense of well being on a more personal level.
"When you're out there, you're getting sunshine, you're getting exercise, you're getting good food and it's very healthy," Pyers said.
"We have one lady who's a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She tells me that gardening's a great stress remover," he said. "There's another gardener who… spent four months in a rest home, and this represents a great rehabilitation for him to get out there and garden."
Gardening lets producers control the types of food they eat and the way their food is grown.
"It tastes different," Gold said. "Most people, once they taste fresh fruits and vegetables out of the garden, don't go back."
Gardeners can reduce their carbon footprints by cutting miles traveled by food from farm to store, and many say they save money by growing their own produce.
"There's a certain satisfaction that anyone who produces their own food gets at harvest," Smalls said.
How to get involved
The Community Garden Committee is now reaching out to Laurel residents for input and assistance in planning the city's community garden.
Those interested in getting involved can help with projects from designing a community garden website to landscaping and doing garden outreach.
To share your opinion on Laurel's community garden or become part of the project, contact Dawn Williams at 301-442-4659or firstname.lastname@example.org.