“What are you doing there in that dirt? Never seen a sista getting all dirty like that before.” Points at the basil: “What is that? What do you do with it? Is it a weed?”
“No, it’s hibiscus and I use it in salads for its light, sweet yet tart leaves.”
Yes, these are among the many questions I’ve been asked as I double dig my little garden plot behind my Deanwood apartment building. I am fortunate because not only can I grow behind my building free of charge, but the building supervisor supports and defends my little plot the best he can. The soil is a rich, dark black-brown, and between the bricks, 1950s milk bottles, and unexpired condoms lives a vast community of worms and beneficial bugs while clover on the surface strengthens the nitrogen below. Fortunate indeed!
It is a shame, however, that not all of my neighbors take advantage of our riches here east of the river. While other residents pay millions to live in a popup shoebox on the Northwest side of town, we are given one-eighth to one-third of an acre to go with our two-story, unfinished-basement, single-family homes priced well under $500K. How did we get here?
When looking into the rich history of food access, gardening, and farming east of the river we see that this was the original farmland for the District. The acres of housing were once fields of corn, greens, and other edible delights just a few generations ago. Speaking with my neighbors I learned my street used to be filled with the buzzing of bees from one fruit tree to the next. Peaches, pears, cherries, and plums used to line these streets free for all to eat. Now only soda cans, plastic bottles, and washed up 7-Eleven pizza boxes litter the ground.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well they cut all the fruit trees down, said they didn’t like all the bees,” I’m told by a 40-year neighborhood resident.
The irony of it all is now DC is in a “bee crisis” and has passed legislation to allow homeowners to keep bees so we can save our food supply. The District has also put our wards in a Supermarket Tax Incentive HUB Zone to incentivize grocery stores, and yet we still have only three stores for 150,000 residents, and two of those stores, well, that Way isn’t so Safe if you catch my drift.
Each year around this time I plan, I dig, and I plant. I plant milkweed and black-eyed Susan for the bees; marigolds, mint, and oregano to keep the other bugs away, and many fruits, vegetables, greens, and herbs to keep me, my friends, and family well fed all year long. Now is the time for planting! And for me, now is the time for the many interesting questions to resume, though after two years at this the questions have started changing.
“What are you growing this year? Will it [the garden] be as big as last year’s?” “I’ll keep an eye on your pumpkins this time [someone stole five of my big ones last year], don’t worry about giving me one, had the best pie ever.” “Will you grow tomatoes again? Those were nice.” “Do you need anything? Can I get you some soil or seeds?” “Can you help me plan my garden? Is there time?”
Yes, there is time. Let me show you.
The Wynter Gardener, Jessica Wynter Martin, is a Deanwood resident and an avid urban gardener. She works tirelessly to bring about greater food access and education throughout the east river community. Send your questions, comments, and suggestions to the Wynter Gardener at WynterGardener@gmail.com.