New community garden taking root in Laurel

The lot behind Laurel Presbyterian Church on Old Sandy Spring Road doesn't look like much — just a space about the size of a football field, with green and brown grass awaiting spring — but in it, a group of gardeners see promise.

Slowly but surely, the Laurel Community Garden is taking root, and the Laurel Presbyterian lot will be its home. The people behind the garden said it will help encourage healthy living, but more importantly, it will foster community.

"When people buy property these days, they often don't have land," said Laurel resident Donna Koczaja, a mechanical engineer and a member of Maryland Master Gardeners, a group lending support to the community garden. "People want to get back to the land, and if they're in apartments, there's no place for them to grow. This is about having a piece of land you can call your own, and it gets you out among other, like-minded people."

Dawn Williams, of Laurel, is also a member of the University of Maryland extension program Maryland Master Gardeners. The community garden is Williams' brainchild; she began thinking about it while manning a Master Gardeners table at Riverfest in 2011 at Riverfront Park.

"I always wanted to have my own urban garden," Williams said. "I knew this was what I wanted to do."

'Rub elbows in the dirt'

Williams began speaking with Laurel City Council member Fred Smalls, who put the gardeners in touch with Mayor Craig Moe and the city. Eventually, an agreement was made to use a portion of a lot on the east side of Laurel Presbyterian Church's campus for the garden. Moe signed a three-year renewable lease with Laurel Presbyterian for the property, Williams said.

In the course of two years, while details were being hammered out, Williams began reaching out to other gardeners in the community. She put up fliers in grocery stores, community centers, churches. One of the first people to reach out to her was Marina Agafonova.

"I got so excited," said Agafonova, 26, who moved to the United States from Russia five years ago. "I didn't know community gardens existed in America."

They do, and they're popular, Williams said, though Laurel is the northernmost city in Prince George's County without a community garden.

"We're a little late to the game," Williams said. "We have so much growth in this area, and we have a growing, progressive society. We have people coming into the area, and we have to find ways to get people to know each other. I don't know of a better way to get people together than to rub elbows in the dirt."

In Washington, waiting lists for community gardens can be two or three years long, said Suzanna Pieslak, 34, of Laurel. When registration opened up for people outside of Laurel and the Laurel Presbyterian parish, she said, many people signing on were from Columbia, where waiting lists also exist.

Out-of-city registration opened up Feb. 25, and, since then, Williams said, about a third of the plots have been purchased.

There are a total of 62 plots, taking up the whole space of about 100-by-200-feet. There are plots of various sizes: 10-by-10 feet, 10-by-20 feet, 20-by-20 feet and a few raised beds measuring 3-by-12 feet. Costs of purchasing a plot range $150 to $180, and includes the first-time registration fee with the annual dues for the growing season.

Registration is open until the garden is full, but the gardeners hope to break ground in May, following the Mother's Day rule for the summer growing season.

'Don't be intimidated'

New gardeners are more than welcome, Pieslak said. The community gardeners have been offering classes for those interested — the next one is Saturday, March 23, at the Laurel Poolhouse at Ninth and Main streets — and Master Gardeners will be on hand at the site to offer help to anyone who needs it.

"Here's the thing about gardening: You will kill things," Pieslak said. "It's a trial and error thing ... and you'd be surprised at how much food you can grow in a 3-by-12 foot plot. Don't be intimidated."

Eventually, the community garden will become its own nonprofit organization, Williams said, and the organizers are asking people to donate some of their produce to area shelters, food banks or Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services (which will have its own plot in the garden as well). Other than that: "This is your plot; this is your food," Williams said.

The gardeners also hope to start a children's bed, Pieslak said, and get volunteers from Laurel High School to help younger kids plant and grow vegetables.

"Sometimes, kids see food and they don't know where it comes from," Koczaja said. "They've never seen a carrot in the ground."

Growing your own food, Williams said, changes your relationship with food: "You're eating healthier, developing better habits."

Ultimately, she said, this garden is for the community and by the community.

"It takes a community to help a community," she said. "This is how we're giving back."

For more information, visit the group's Facebook page at, or email Register a plot at the Laurel Municipal Center, 8103 Sandy Spring Road.

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