Glossy, purple-black eggplant, rainbow heirloom tomatoes, fresh cilantro, bronzy Zulu sunflowers.
If you covet homegrown produce but lack the space or sun for a garden, or if you'd like the company of fellow gardeners and some hands-on guidance from a master, a community garden could be the solution.
And now is the time to get started. Winter's calm not only offers an opportunity to plan any gardening project, but sign-ups for plots in local community gardens begin in just a few weeks.
Community gardens have a long history. Native Americans practiced community gardening long before the colonists planted turnips together at Jamestown. While community gardening back then was all about survival, it always had side-dressings of friendship and learning, and that hasn't changed.
"There's a lot of important things discussed there other than vegetables, and a lot of new friendships develop," says Larry Kloze, former co-chair of the Community Garden Committee of the Master Gardeners of Baltimore City. Kloze is one of 110 members of Master Gardeners, who collaborate with a range of individuals and community groups to create and maintain community gardens.
Community gardens vary considerably in set-up and character. Some offer individuals an opportunity to rent garden plots in parks to grow their own vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. Others are the joint work of individuals and community groups who want to enhance a bereft bit of ground. Some are even reclamation projects.
"We transform areas from rubble mounds to gardens," says Ed Miller, supervisor of the community-lot team at Civic Works, a nonprofit service corps in Baltimore.
Girls Helping Girls Grow, a garden at Garrison Middle School, is primarily educational.
"It's a partnership between Roland Park Country School and Garrison Middle that uses a vegetable garden as a teaching aid," says Kloze.
The lessons can range from practical, (how to grow food), to emotional (the satisfaction of holding the literal fruits of your own labor in your hands) to character-building (the incremental gratification of nurturing living things).
Community gardens can also offer kids a chance to volunteer.
"We have school groups come and do some of their community service [requirement] in our gardens," says Miller.
Civic Works projects (often done in collaboration with other agencies and community groups) include a community garden with a mural on North Avenue and a labyrinth, butterfly garden and nursery on what was a demolition site behind Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in East Baltimore.
For individuals who want to grow their own food, herbs and flowers but lack space or sun, there is City Farms, a project begun in 1978 by Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Participants rent 15-by-20-foot plots in local parks for $20 a year.
Plot holders from the previous year get first dibs on their space at sign-up time in February and March. Though most plots are renewed each year, there are about 50 up for grabs at Fort Holabird Park. And there may soon be a new community garden in Federal Hill.
"I'd like to put one in Riverside Park this year," says Bill Vondrasek, chief horticulturist at Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks.
City Farms would break sod and prep the ground before renting the new plots.
For each community garden, the city provides wood chips for mulch, leaf mold compost, and a place to compost organic waste. The rest is up to plot holders, who must keep their plots maintained.
At season's end, City Farms sponsors a harvest supper.
"Everybody brings a dish and we sponsor hot dogs and hamburgers and a grill," says Vondrasek. "It's fun. There are garden contests and door prizes."
The community gardens in Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard, and Baltimore counties are run on much the same terms, though some, for example Stansbury Park community garden in Baltimore County, restrict some chemical use and certain plants.
Other community gardens are more like civic outreach. For example, the Parks and People Foundation focuses on green space - improving what's there and creating new areas for the public to enjoy. To that end, the group offers small grants to community groups for gardening projects.
"It's a way to initiate projects and give technical support," says Kari Smith, assistant director of the foundation's Community Greening Stewardship Program. "Anything from planting trees and holding events in parks, to vacant-lot restoration and planting individual trees on streets for someone who wants one."
One of the program's recent joint projects is a garden with Lighthouse Ministries in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester community, on an abandoned lot that naysayers claimed would never grow anything.
"It looks like a piece of Eden now," says Brenda Harrison, co-pastor of Lighthouse Ministries.
Wisely, instead of blocking or rerouting a path worn by people walking to a restaurant on the other side of the lot, the design incorporated it.
"So now, people walk through the same way as before but have something beautiful to look at," says Harrison.
Though many community gardens are in neighborhoods torn by drugs and crime, gardeners and organizers alike say vandalism has not been a problem.
"It seems as though the more beautiful the area is, it's respected in the community," says Civic Works' Miller. "The areas are used, but not assaulted."
Yet while vandalism hasn't been a problem, maintenance has.
"Upkeep is always an issue," says Miller.
Some community gardens have committed caretakers while others rely on hit-or-miss voluntarism. But the effort to keep the gardens going is worth it, organizers say.
"When the group is successful, it makes them feel great and strengthens them and the neighborhood," says Smith of the Parks and People Foundation.
Tips for Starting
Start small. Incremental growth is better than starting big and getting overwhelmed and discouraged.
Have a well-thought-out plan that takes into account your own and your family's needs, capabilities and desires. Plant what you - and your family, neighbors and friends - will enjoy. Only Italian veggies and herbs? Greens for salads all summer long? Flowers for cutting?
For sprawling plants like pumpkins and melons, consider going up. Trellises, tuteurs and lightweight fencing add growing space in small gardens.
Consider companion planting. Herbs and flowers among the veggies are not only beautiful, but help ward off bugs and other predators.
For ideas, go to seed catalogues, magazines and books such as How to Grow More Vegetables Than Your Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons (Ten Speed Press, 1995, $17.95), and Lasagna Gardening for Small Spaces by Patricia Lanza (Rodale, 2002, $15.95).
Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks
4915 Greenspring Ave.
Colleen McCarty, garden coordinator
Parks & People Foundation
Stieff Silver Building
800 Wyman Park Drive, Suite 010
Kari Smith, assistant director of Community Greening Stewardship Program
410-448-5663, ext. 109
2701 Saint Lo Drive
Anne Arundel County
Kinder Farm Park
1001 Kinder Farm Park Road
Oakland Mills Road near Dobbin Road
Martin Road near Freetown Road
Long Reach plots
Old Dobbin Road across from Long Reach High School
Bob McFeeters, vice president, Columbia Gardeners
7880 Stansbury Road
County Home Park
10401 Greenside Drive
3326 N. Rolling Road
Watersedge Turner Station
8820 Bullneck Road
Hannah More Park
12035 Reisterstown Road
301 Schwartz Ave.
Double Rock Park
8211 Glen Road