Literacy garden promises bounty of food and books

Gardening held little appeal to Stacey Watkins, a Baltimore special-education teacher, until an organization that helps keep her classroom in books put out a call for help with an urban planting project. She soon found her manicured hands could do wonders with dirt.

Within a few hours last week, Watkins, who dug unencumbered by garden gloves, had planted straight rows of broccoli, kale, cauliflower and all manner of herbs in a vacant, long-neglected lot along Park Heights Avenue.

"Yum," she said, embedding thyme and rosemary into dark earth. "It smells so good that it makes you want to go home and just eat veggies."

Just the reaction Baltimore Reads is looking for. The literacy advocacy organization is turning a half-acre spot, across Park Heights Avenue from St. Ambrose Outreach Center, into a food oasis and an outdoor library. The group had long eyed the parcel of ground, owned by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a provider of community services to the impoverished, for the city's first literacy garden. The land promises to yield fresh produce and supply books to nourish a neighborhood that lacks a library and a grocery.

"The closest library is at least a mile away," said Rachel Dolcine, training coordinator for Baltimore Reads. "Fresh foods are even farther."

While 10 planting beds will offer bounty throughout the growing season, Dolcine has scheduled activities often associated with a library, like a book bank, crafts and storytime for children, and events that bring a community together, like outdoor concerts, singalongs and theater under the stars. There will be benches, picnic tables and maybe a small tent, but no fences.

"We want this spot open," she said. "We want the community to come here, relax and read."

The free produce will bring the neighbors, while books and events will encourage them to linger, she said. Planting came first. Volunteers, like Tiffany Livingstone and her 10-year-old daughter Alexa, arrived early Wednesday and set to work tilling the 60-square-foot wooden beds already built on the lot.

"Baltimore Reads never turns our school away when we ask for books," said Livingstone, principal of Featherbed Lane Elementary in Gwynn Oak. "We had time to help them today."

Younghee Yang, who grew up in rural South Korea and is taking English classes at Baltimore Reads, measured the distance between each plant and made her rows nearly perfect. Gardening brings back memories of her homeland, she said.

Bianca Perez, a Mount Vernon resident, yanked out a "serious network of weeds" from the beds and filled several large pots with herbs.

"I know how hard it is to get groceries in the city," she said. "How can you grocery shop when you have to travel far on a bus with your kids? This is a neighborhood that really needs its own garden."

The wagons and wheelbarrows were filled with topsoil for the planting, but they will be hosed down and brimming with children's volumes throughout the growing season. The organization has several book drives going on and its biggest, the annual Books for Kids Day, runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 5 at Poly-Western High School, Falls Road and Cold Spring Lane. That drive, which netted about 28,000 volumes in 2011, will help to constantly replenish the supply at the literacy garden. Children will be encouraged to keep the books and start their own home library.

A half-acre garden will not feed the entire neighborhood, but it will demonstrate alternatives to fast food and maybe spark a taste for more healthful fare, said Willie Flowers, director of Park Heights Community Health Alliance and a volunteer at the literacy garden planting.

"The garden is an oasis in this food desert," said Flowers. "We need as many of these gardens as possible, and there are so many vacant, neglected lots here we can use. These spaces are filled with weeds. If weeds can grow here, so can tomatoes."

Flowers, a longtime Park Heights resident, has another community garden growing nearby. Its first year was a little rocky but last year it thrived, providing food for about 60 families, he said. He just pulled out bunches of carrots that overwintered, and arugula planted several weeks ago is ready to harvest, he said.

"Everything gets used, and people quickly figured fresh vegetables can be the center of your diet," he said. "We had a few folks last year who didn't know what an eggplant was. So we have added a recipe piece."

No money will exchange hands. A bit of sweat equity — help with planting, weeding, watering or an activity — will net a bagful of produce.

Watkins and Perez, the volunteer planters, were inspired by their first venture into urban gardening. Both women left the lot with planting tips and plans to create at least a small garden at their homes. Perez said her fire escape gets great sun and has space for a planter or two.

"What vegetables can I put together in a pot?" Watkins asked. "This was so much fun, I have to try it at home."

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