Gardening has long been a passion of Mary Gold. When the librarian moved to Columbia nearly three decades ago, she was disappointed to find that her backyard was too shady to grow vegetables.
These days, she finds time to garden several days a week, and grows enough vegetables and herbs to share with her friends and family.
Gold, 61, is one of 114 gardeners who lease plots at the Lake Elkhorn Community Gardens in Owen Brown village of Columbia.
Not only have the Community Gardens offered Gold a place to follow her passion for the past 25 years, they also have provided a place for friendships to grow.
"The best part of a community garden is sharing with friends here," Gold said on a recent hazy morning. "We have people from all over the world, so they can share things that are unique to their culture."
She points out a tall, crimson-flowered amaranth plant growing in Rose Marie Meservey's garden. Gold gave Meservey the grain, which is native to South America, and now it flourishes alongside okra, a vegetable originally from West Africa, and shiny, round Korean squashes.
Meservey, who is retired, comes to the Lake Elkhorn gardens daily.
"I just love being in a garden," she said. "For me, it's a therapy kind of thing. Relaxing."
Like Gold, Meservey appreciates the companionship she found at the gardens. "You make friends with your neighbors," she said. "We trade everything - tips and tricks, produce."
Site manager Emily Shaw, 31, a medical illustrator and medical simulation education specialist, said "a lot of gardeners come out here because it's therapeutic.
"They use this as their private time, but many find that it's really a good chance to network. ... It's a good way to meet a cross-section of the community. There's a whole multitude of people who speak different languages, people from different cultures."
Despite the drought that has afflicted Maryland this summer, Shaw said that community upkeep has helped the gardens flourish.
"Lake Elkhorn [Community Gardens] looks better than ever," Shaw said. "Interest just peaked this year. We were lucky. We had a lot of people to help with the general tasks that a garden this size requires."
For $35 a year, those who live or work in Howard County can rent a 20-foot-by-24-foot plot from the Columbia Gardeners Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1967. The volunteer-run gardeners association also owns smaller gardens in the Columbia villages of Hickory Ridge and Long Reach. At Lake Elkhorn, the fee pays for water and to mow the grassy walkways crisscrossing the 210 lots on the 2.5-acre property.
The association leases plots on a first-come, first-served basis. Returning gardeners must renew their applications by Feb. 1, after which time remaining spots are made available to new gardeners.
Garden tenants are expected to help maintain the community compost pile, weed empty gardens and assist with administrative tasks.
Gardeners at Lake Elkhorn also must deal with hungry groundhogs, rabbits and insects that can destroy their crops.
"If the drought doesn't get you, it'll be the animals," said Ellicott City resident John Prewitt. "Deer figured out how to jump the fences."
Though pesticide use is not forbidden, most gardeners choose other methods of protecting their produce.
Health-conscious Prewitt, 83, said that he uses insecticide soap and neem oil as insect repellents, and prefers his own produce to that from local supermarkets.
"Most grocery items are treated with chemicals that are not good to have in your system," he said. "When you grow your own produce, you can be sure what you're putting in your body is safe and nutritious."
Prewitt said that he started coming to Lake Elkhorn soon after he retired 20 years ago.
"I started because I needed some work and hobby work is work," he said. About the same time, he and his wife chose to adopt healthier eating habits.
"We're vegetarians, and very health-conscious," Prewitt said. "The sooner you eat a picked vegetable, the more nutritious it is. I do my own gardening because then I'll know for sure that it's organic and healthful. I don't know when that tomato at the Giant was picked. You don't know what kind of chemicals they used on it. You don't know anything about who handled it before you. "
In addition to tomatoes, Prewitt grows chicory, radishes, onions, squash, and asparagus that he is "very proud of." He donates leftovers to his friends who do not grow their own produce.
Like Prewitt, most gardeners give away leftover produce.
"It's almost not kosher to sell them!" Gold laughed. "Our friends, our neighbors get to enjoy what we grow."