Tucked between rows of crumbling, empty homes in East Baltimore, kale, collard greens and parsley grow in tidy rows, the leaves still deep-green in December. A few blocks away, a cluster of tree stumps bearing handmade chess boards draws elementary school children to what was once an abandoned lot.
Pocket parks and community gardens such as these are nestled in plots across the city, nurtured by residents who devote their free time to transforming trash-strewn lots — owned by the city or absentee landlords — into neighborhood oases.
But as officials ratchet up efforts to sell off the city's vacant properties, park advocates are concerned that green spaces will inadvertently be sold as well. Saturday, about two dozen volunteers are planning to scour neighborhoods for the reclaimed lots, photographing them and marking their locations with GPS-enabled phones.
"Lots of neighborhoods have their treasures that aren't necessarily on the beaten path," said Baltimore Green Space founder Miriam Avins, the organizer of the survey. "There are all kinds of things going on that you would never guess," said Avins, whose nonprofit works to protect reclaimed city lands.
Avins and Baltimore Green Space board member Mary Cox staked out parks and gardens last week in preparation for today's expedition.
The two women passed an olive tree and rows of raspberry bushes in Better Waverly, a meticulously landscaped rain garden in East Baltimore and, in Barclay, grass breaking through old asphalt.
"We don't just want to know where they are, but who takes care of them and what do they do," said Avins.
Among the city's longest-established community gardens is the Duncan Street Miracle Garden in East Baltimore, a consolidation of 44 vacant lots. In summer, grapevines, strawberries and even a peanut patch grow in the garden, which is surrounded by the backs of burned-out homes.
Schoolchildren learn the quiet pleasures of tending plants amid plots decorated with whimsical birdhouses built by Maryland Institute College of Art students.
A policy approved by city officials a year ago allowed the Duncan Street garden to be bought by Baltimore Green Space for a nominal fee to guarantee that it will be preserved.
But unless smaller parks and gardens such as the nearby "Peace and Chess Park" are catalogued, Avins says, they could end up being sold.
Last month, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano rolled out a plan to speed the sale of the city's more than 16,000 vacant structures and 14,000 empty lots.
Volunteers organized by Avins' group and park advocates plan to scout out about 600 of those lots that might contain parks or gardens, based on grant records. Avins estimates that as many as half could turn out to be worthy of preservation.
The data will then be turned over to housing officials and noted on maps that detail vacant properties.
Julie Day, the housing department's deputy commissioner for land disposition, said the information would help her staff determine which lots to hold on to.
"When someone has staked a claim on a property, we would like to perpetuate that effort," said Day.
Day said parks and gardens bolster communities by connecting neighbors, fostering civic pride and reducing crime — all of which, she said, ultimately increase property values.
"The security in any community is going to be enhanced when neighbors know each other," said Day. "There's a vibe that makes people want to move to the neighborhood."
Justine Bonner, a retired teacher and school administrator, has seen the benefits of community gardens blossom in her Sandtown neighborhood.
Bonner began planting flowers in a vacant lot with neighborhood children about a decade ago. Now, nearly a dozen gardens, large and small, flourish on the sites of razed homes and a long-vacant stretch between houses, she said.
"One of the things we've noticed is that the children have a respect for the plants," she said. "They realize that if they leave the flowers there, everyone can enjoy them."
The gardens have dissuaded residents from illegal dumping and improved the quality of the soil, she said. And the lush spaces appear to have boosted home sales, she added.
"Realtors are attracted to the area because there are people here who are interested in taking care of the properties," she said. Investors make offers to homeowners, and long-vacant homes near the gardens have recently been rehabbed, she said.
But the benefits to the community's spirit might be most important, Bonner said.
"It has provided an outlet for people who have rural backgrounds, many of whom grew up in the South," she said. Many older residents live in apartments and didn't have land to cultivate before the community gardens, she said.