The seed from which an urban garden grew

Elisa Lane is not much bigger than the pigtails she wears when she gardens at the Whitelock Community Farm in Reservoir Hill. But she has a big impact.

She sells the fresh vegetables from the empty corner lot that she just kind of took over at below-market prices to residents of the neighborhood.

When her farm stand isn't open, residents can buy from the corner market that she supplies. And she has enough to sell to restaurants like Woodberry Kitchen and at the Waverly Farmers Market to help subsidize her cut-rate prices for the garden's neighbors.

When those neighbors regularly interrupted her weeding to ask how to begin their own vegetable gardens, she began teaching classes.

Ms. Lane is the product of the Master Gardener program, which is run by the University of Maryland Extension Service in Baltimore City. And her "Grow It, Eat It" lessons for rookie gardeners are an Extension Service program, too.

The Extension Service in the city, which launched this dynamo, would disappear under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget for fiscal year 2014.

If the city withdraws its $171,000 share, as the budget proposes, the matching funds from the university and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will disappear, too. That's just how it works.

The Extension Service in the city runs a number of other programs, too. Nutrition education, financial literacy, lots of programs for young people. And its small army of master gardeners are in evidence all over the city — at urban gardens, in schools and at public gardens like Mount Vernon and Cylburn Arboretum. They put in more than 7,000 hours last year.

But Ms. Lane is the perfect example of why this program should never be cut — and this is the third time in a decade that its elimination has been proposed.

What you have to understand is that Ms. Lane is a volunteer, like the other master gardeners.

And she is (almost) single-handedly supplying fresh food to the families and children who need it most — those who live in what we call food deserts in the city. Places without access to fresh food.

And she is sharing what she knows with anyone who asks.

"I am outside all day, and people come by and tell me they wish they knew how to grow things," she said during a break in her weeding. She is doubling the size of her quarter-acre plot — there is another abandoned lot across Whitelock Street.

She and her husband, an attorney for the Social Security Administration, recently purchased land in Hampstead to multiply the amount of food she can bring into the city to sell for next to nothing.

"A lot of young people here don't get to go out and visit farms in the county. And when they see things growing out of the ground, like carrots or tomatoes, it is an eye-opening experience for them. They can't believe it," said Ms. Lane. Her city farm has no gates and no fences.

She has added a hoop house on a corner of the lot, and she grows vegetables in the winter, too.

"It is so powerful for people to come to the farm and see us grow food and think, 'Hey, I can do this.'" Her voice catches when she talks about it.

This is an ambitious young woman with big dreams. She needs the room in Hampstead, she says, to grow watermelons and squash, which take up so much more ground than she has in Reservoir Hill.

Times are tough. Budgets at every government level are being cut — deeply cut. I get it. But Whitelock Community Farm doesn't get any money from the city. Ms. Lane scrounges for grants and donations and volunteers.

What the city did pay for is the program that planted the seed that became Elisa Lane.

Seems like a hell of an investment to me.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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