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Laurel Community Garden grows into second season

By Sara Toth, stoth@tribune.com

10:06 AM EDT, March 19, 2014

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With recent snows and sub-zero temperatures, it might not seem like spring is right around the corner.

But Laurel gardeners are taking a cue from the plants they grow and keeping their eyes to the sun, like Suzanna Pieslak, who is caring for seedlings on a radiator in her dining room. Those seedlings will soon take roots in the Laurel Community Garden, which is about to begin its second season.

And this season, organizers said, will be bigger and better than the first.

"We're expanding the scope," said Dawn Williams, who first envisioned the garden several years ago. "This is different than what we did last time. Last year we focused on how to grow your own fresh fruits and vegetables, and now, we're really concentrating on how we can benefit our community even more."

Williams, a member of the University of Maryland extension program Maryland Master Gardeners, along with other community organizers and master gardeners, is gearing up for the growing season. The community garden was certified as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization late last year, opening it up to more partnerships and the opportunity for grants. While partnerships with the city of Laurel and Laurel Presbyterian Church (the garden is in a lot behind the church on Old Sandy Spring Road) are as strong as ever, Williams is looking to grow more relationships.

She's reaching out to the American Cancer Society, the Ulman Cancer Foundation and Relay for Life, and wants to establish a plot in the garden for cancer survivors' use, for example.

"Healthy eating habits and a healthy lifestyle are more than just beneficial," she said. "They're life-saving."

Even the training sessions for interested gardeners are bigger this year, Williams said. The first session is Saturday, March 29, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Laurel Municipal Pool Complex, and a second will follow in May. The training sessions are longer this year because more people are involved: a dietitian from Laurel Regional Hospital will be on hand to talk about the benefits of fresh food; the Prince George's County Rain Check program will make a presentation on the tax benefits of green practices; the Prince George's County Herbal Society will give an introduction to herbs; and Lowe's employees will talk about organic growing practices.

There are physical additions to the garden as well, with the installation of six composting bins and two spinning compost barrels. Those went in last fall, and were the work of Boy Scout Eric Comitz as his Eagle Scout project. Instead of composting at home, gardeners have been taking their decomposable scraps to the bins and, come summer, will have fertilizer for their plots.

"We're so excited about all of these things," Williams said. "Last year was a tremendous success. We worked really hard, and we've done so much in the first year. We're going to strive to do even more the second. It's going to be fun, and we're ecstatic — we had a long list of things we wanted to do, and we're checking things off the list. We're reaping the benefits of what we've sowed."

There are still about 15 plots available for rent in the garden, which organizers think will be a bustle of activity by the end of May, after the region's frost-free date of Mother's Day, May 11. Registration for existing plot-holders wrapped up in early February, and now registration is open to the rest of the public.

'A conscious choice to slow down'

But even though the last freeze date is about a month-and-a-half away, the returning gardeners already have their hands in the dirt. Many, like Pieslak, are preparing seedings inside and acclimating them slowly to the outdoors.

While Pieslak has several raised beds in her backyard (one home to spinach and radishes, another filled with strawberries lying dormant and two with hops for her husband's home-brewing operation), the plants that will eventually go into her community garden plot are still inside. On top of a radiator, underneath a window and a heat lamp, kale and tomatoes are starting to spring up from their starter beds.

"At this point, when they're seeds, the key is heat and moisture," Pieslak said. "When they sprout, that's when they need light."

Pieslak, along with a team of volunteers from St. Mary of the Mils Catholic Church, runs the 20-by-20-foot Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services plot. Last year, she and her group were able to donate 350 pounds of fresh food to LARS.

Maintaining a plot that large takes a lot of work, Pieslak said, but first-time gardeners with a smaller plot shouldn't be intimidated.

"Play around with what you want to eat — you don't have to use all the seeds you buy," she said. "It's trial and error, and the Master Gardeners are so helpful."

That's the best part about community gardening, Pieslak said: the community. She helped start up a community garden in southeast Washington, D.C., and when she moved to Laurel almost four years ago Pieslak was delighted about having a garden of her own; but she said it was "lonely."

"There was no one around to ask, 'how did you get your tomatoes to look so good?' or 'here, have these extra seeds,' " Pieslak said. "It's good this way. You meet a lot of people, and I have met so many friends I wouldn't have many any other way. It's great, and it's diverse, and it's friendly."

The other half to community garden — the actual "garden" — is just as important, with the focus on growing one's own fresh foods and vegetables. It's more than just environmentally sustainable, Pieslak said, it's natural.

"I like doing this," Pieslak said, a spray bottle in hand as she misted her seedlings. "It's nice, in February, to be thinking about the warm weather and see something growing, however small. It's nice to be eating a jar of salsa in the winter made from last summer's canned tomatoes. It feels more natural. Sometimes, life can be so fast-paced and hectic. This takes a little bit of patience, a little bit of learning, but it's doable, and it's a conscious choice to slow down."