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At Tubman House, a free garden grows in Sandtown-Winchester

At Tubman House, a free garden grows in Sandtown-Winchester
Hot green peppers are among several types of vegetables and herbs that are grown at Tubman House Farms, a community garden in the Sandtown Winchester neighborhood. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Around the corner from the Freddie Gray mural at North Mount and Presbury streets and across the street from Gilmor Homes public housing project, rows of vacant houses once stood. Now, dozens of residents of Sandtown-Winchester gather there every Sunday. The vacant houses set for demolition at and around 1618 Presbury St. were torn down so that the Tubman House — a neighborhood organization named after Maryland’s iconic abolitionist — can provide free produce to the community from its own garden.

The making of the Tubman House Garden

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Nearly 15 residents showed up on a recent cloudy Tuesday and left with smiles and bags full of fruits and vegetables — ranging from kale to oranges to cucumbers. They didn’t have to worry about paying for the produce and they could trust where they were getting it from, after all, most of them had watched it grow.

The Tubman House, an organization formed in 2016, serves as a resource for the Sandtown-Winchester community and its surrounding neighborhoods. Founder Dominique Stevenson started the garden as a way to provide the community with locally grown fruits and vegetables at no cost.

Founder Dominique Stevenson

Dominique Stevenson, founder of Tubman House, picks peppers at Tubman House Farms, a community garden in the Sandtown neighborhood.
Dominique Stevenson, founder of Tubman House, picks peppers at Tubman House Farms, a community garden in the Sandtown neighborhood. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Stevenson was working with men in prison before she started Tubman House. Most days, they walked around the neighborhood, handing out bagged lunches mostly to children and adults to curb the problem of hunger within the food desert community. She said that most of the men that she worked with felt a sense of remorse.

“A lot of them wanted to do something that was redemptive, they felt like they had taken from the community and they wanted to figure out a way to give back.”

One man in particular, who had grown up in the neighborhood, identified the location across the street from Gilmor Homes. That’s when Tubman House president Eddie Conway, who also worked at Gilmor, got involved.

Mr. Farmer

Ausar Amen, farm manager at Tubman House Farms, holds a bunch of dinosaur kale that he grew in one of the organization's garden beds in the Sandtown neighborhood.
Ausar Amen, farm manager at Tubman House Farms, holds a bunch of dinosaur kale that he grew in one of the organization's garden beds in the Sandtown neighborhood. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Eddie Conway used the connections that he had developed within the area to draw people into leadership roles. He recruited farm manager Ausar-Mesh Amen who is in charge of maintaining all three gardens along the block. When residents stop by the farm Amen’s the first person they turn to with questions about the produce options for the day. Some even refer to him fondly as “Mr. Farmer.” He comes out seven days a week, sometimes even in the middle of the night, to tend to the garden. He also mentors the youth volunteers and establishes connections with other organizations to bring in revenue.

The purpose of the green, red and black plots

The garden started with only a few wooden plots, but it grew quickly over time. The Tubman House uses a system of colors. Most of the fruits and vegetables are in green plots. They house the produce that are free for the community to take. The cash crops grow in red boxes. According to Amen, Restaurants like Ida B’s Table in Mount Vernon, will purchase red-box produce to use in their dishes. Tubman House has most recently been exploring black lots, which would be provided to residents in the community who are looking to grow their own food.

A hen house overlooks one of the garden plots at Tubman House Farms, a community garden in the Sandtown Winchester neighborhood.
A hen house overlooks one of the garden plots at Tubman House Farms, a community garden in the Sandtown Winchester neighborhood. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Leading by example

The garden grew from humble beginnings, in its initial phase Tubman House farmers only had room for a few plots. Amen said that the process of working with the community to change their perceptions of natural produce has been “very slow but very rewarding.” He stressed the importance of pesticide-free farming and chooses fruits and vegetables that are naturally resilient. The garden also employs the neighborhood’s youth. Amen works with them individually to teach them how to cultivate and grow their own fruits and vegetables to take back home to their families.

What the future looks like for the garden

The future of the garden is expansion and increased community engagement. Tubman House recently began raising chickens and collecting their eggs. For Stevenson, that means eventually turning the Tubman House Garden area into a community center that residents can utilize in many different ways. For Amen that means broadening youth outreach and equipping more of the young members of the community with farming and nutrition knowledge. That also includes partnering with more organizations and restaurants around the area that can purchase the crops.

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