Laverne Debnam welcomes visiting garden enthusiast Cheryl Dyer and Anita Gilbert.
Laverne Debnam welcomes visiting garden enthusiast Cheryl Dyer and Anita Gilbert. (Phil Grout-for Baltimore Sun Med/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Upon entering Laurel Community Garden on a Wednesday evening in August, it was easy to spot tomatoes, okra, eggplant and squash. A closer look revealed peanuts and radishes.

One of the most important things grown at the garden, however, cannot be picked or consumed.

Advertisement

Friendships have blossomed in the space behind Laurel Presbyterian Church, on Sandy Spring Road, where people of all ages and backgrounds bond over their love for gardening. Whether giving tips, shooing away animals, sharing crops or helping weed each other’s plots while on vacation, the gardeners reap more than just what they sow.

“We’re like a family,” said Laverne Debnam, who has had a plot in the community garden since it opened in 2013. “We look out for each other.”

“We all learn from each other,” said Thomas Devine, standing near his plot of soybeans. “It [may look] like a weed to me, but I find out they eat it” he said of other things being grown.

Known as the “professor” by fellow gardeners, Devine has been developing new varieties of soybeans in his 10-by-20-foot plot through careful methods that involve blossom picking, cross-pollination and splicing.

“I worked for 42 years with the USDA,” Devine said. ‘That’s what I do.”

“He goes around to plots and says, ‘This could make you itch’ or ‘You may not want this in your garden,'” said Dawn Williams, a fellow gardener, laughing.

A master gardener in Prince George’s County, Williams helped drive the creation of the Laurel Community Garden.

“I always wanted to have my own vegetable garden,” Williams said. “In 2011, I was talking with Councilman Fred Smalls about urban gardening . . . and he talked with the mayor. They said, ‘We’re going to do this.’”

Several places around the city volunteered space, but the half-acre of land at Laurel Presbyterian was hard to beat. The church gave the Laurel Community Garden nonprofit the space for free with a five-year renewable lease.

“They did not have this much sun or this much open space,” said Williams of the others that offered a home to the garden. The church site has over 50 different plots ranging in size from 20-by-20 to 3-by-12.

Members fees cover expenses such as water, upkeep and supplies. There is a one-time membership cost of $100 and then residents renting space pay yearly fees based on the size of their plots. Non-residents pay $15 more.

A water line was run for the site and a shed was built to hold supplies. There is a compost area, rain barrels and everything is surrounded by a fence.

“The city of Laurel has been instrumental in this – the mayor, City Council, Parks and Recreation department,” Williams said.

Parks and Recreation helps with light upkeep and the members do all the mowing.

Advertisement

“The city’s role is to support them and assist them with the registration at our office,” said Joanne Hall-Barr, director of Parks and Recreation. “We maintain their records and will pay the water bill.

“They are a tremendous group,” Hall-Barr said. “We are happy to see new people come out.”

Each gardener is asked to give eight hours of volunteer time to the garden each season. Two plots of produce are prepared for donation to Laurel Advocacy & Referral Services Inc. and Elizabeth House.

“We pick it and maintain it for them,” said Debnam, who also donates produce from her own plot to Laurel Councilwoman Valerie Nicholas, who works in the community to help the homeless and less fortunate.

“This little plot can give you so much,” Debnam said. “People don’t realize.”

The group also hosts evening gatherings in the spring for offering gardening tips.

“It is amazing what people grow,” Debnam said, as she pointed out various plots featuring produce from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Native Americans.

Mother Nature does have an active role in the garden’s success, Williams said, as some seasons are hot and dry, while others are waterlogged. Animals, from deer to groundhogs and squirrels, also enjoy taking shares when possible.

“This has been a really good year,” Williams said. “Plants are serving their purpose.”

While many of the plots are flourishing, a few empty ones are still scattered throughout the garden.

“I want to get the word out,” Williams said. “I want to get people out here. I am hoping I can educate as many people as I can.”

Strolling around the community garden, Williams could barely hold her glee.

“I’m delighted to be here,” she said. “This is what I wanted to do. This looks good.”

Master gardener Dawn Williams (right) chats with her friends and fellow gardeners Laverne Debnam, center, and Constence Ojoh.
Master gardener Dawn Williams (right) chats with her friends and fellow gardeners Laverne Debnam, center, and Constence Ojoh. (Phil Grout-for Baltimore Sun Med/Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Dawn Williams is dwarfed by the giant crop of corn.
Dawn Williams is dwarfed by the giant crop of corn. (Phil Grout-for Baltimore Sun Med/Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Constence Ojoh enjoys vegetables from West Africa planted in the Laurel Community Garden.
Constence Ojoh enjoys vegetables from West Africa planted in the Laurel Community Garden. (Phil Grout-for Baltimore Sun Med/Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Thomas Devine formerly of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, focuses on developing new strains of soybeans. Constence Ojoh grows many kinds of vegetables in her garden plot here and at home with her mother and grandmother, all formerly of Cameroon, Africa.
Thomas Devine formerly of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, focuses on developing new strains of soybeans. Constence Ojoh grows many kinds of vegetables in her garden plot here and at home with her mother and grandmother, all formerly of Cameroon, Africa. (Phil Grout-for Baltimore Sun Med/Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Laverne Debnam welcomes visiting garden enthusiasts Cheryl Dyer and Anita Gilbert.
Laverne Debnam welcomes visiting garden enthusiasts Cheryl Dyer and Anita Gilbert. (Phil Grout-for Baltimore Sun Med/Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Thomas Devine and Constence Ojoh stroll the Laurel Community Garden behind the Laurel Presbyterian Church on Sandy Springs Road and talk gardening.
Thomas Devine and Constence Ojoh stroll the Laurel Community Garden behind the Laurel Presbyterian Church on Sandy Springs Road and talk gardening. (Phil Grout-for Baltimore Sun Med / Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Dawn Williams enjoys the community of the garden as well as the fresh vegetables it yields.
Dawn Williams enjoys the community of the garden as well as the fresh vegetables it yields. (Phil Grout-for Baltimore Sun Med / Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement