Getting Involved in Gardening this Summer

Burrville Elementary School has invested in a row of cherry trees that frame the grassy play yard and demonstrates the school’s interest in establishing more gardens. Photo: Rindy O’Brien

There is an urban legend that circulates this time of year. It warns enthusiastic garden folks that it takes years, decades even, to get a garden plot at one of the Hill’s community gardens. Actually, for some of the more established community gardens, that is true. Recently, after being on a wait list for 11 years, I finally was offered a garden plot. Thankfully, I had been accepted at another garden in the years in between.

Realizing the growing demand for garden spaces, the DC Department of Parks and Recreation and the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education have joined forces to offer even more opportunities for gardeners to grow their own food this summer. And, the Washington Youth Garden located at the US National Arboretum offers Family Garden Days starting this month.

April is therefore the time to get signed up for a summer of fresh air, dirty hands and delicious vegetables and herbs.

Tulips in the Burrville School box hint at things to come from a summer of gardening. Photo: Rindy O’Brien

Fresh Is Best
If you have never gardened, you may ask what the excitement is all about. Nothing beats flavor and nutrients packed into freshly picked fruits and vegetables. Once picked, produce begins to lose moisture and nutrients immediately, so if you really want fresh, nothing beats growing it yourself. Also, many studies show that 30 minutes of gardening has amazing health benefits, including giving your body a boost of Vitamin D from the sun. A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that various physical activities, gardening among them, can cut your risk of Alzheimer’s by 50 percent.

It is also important to find ways to get your children involved in gardening. You don’t want your child to be the one who thinks peas and corn come from the frozen food aisle. Especially for parents striving to get their kids to eat a healthy and balanced diet, gardening can be a great tool.

It’s not just getting the kids to eat the vegetables they grow. Studies show that kids who participate in gardening projects score higher in science than those who do not. The act of gardening, getting active and dirty, actually strengthens a child’s immune system and overall health. Gardening also provides a place to get away from electronics and teach responsibility.

Meeting new people who share the same interest as you is an added bonus in gardening. In some of the community gardens in Wards 7 and 8, the gardeners produce their own sauces and dishes from the garden, and they share and sell the sauces at local events. A full list of community gardens in our area can be found at, and contact information is available, so you can set up a visit to the garden and get your name on a waiting list.

Adopt a School or Community Garden
The DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) are initiating a new program that seems like a great win-win. It’s a wonder no one thought of this before.

Twenty schools and a few community gardens that have established vegetable gardens are encouraging DC residents to work in their school gardens over the summer. In some cases, the crops have already been planted by the school children, and all the volunteers need to do is general maintenance such as watering and weeding. In return, they are welcome to pick the ripening vegetables. In other gardens, gardeners may be starting from scratch.

Sam Ullery, the lead staffer with the OSSE, notes that “many school gardens are not used during the peak growing season, even though these living spaces still need to be maintained so they are ready for the start of school. School gardens thrive when there is community support.” He hopes to see community members continue to support the gardens after this project ends.

In Ward 7, Anne Beers Elementary School is requesting three community volunteers, beginning this spring. Watering is a major activity for volunteers, since there is no irrigation system at the school. Volunteers should be ready to share the love of the school vegetable garden with curious neighbors. The school is located at 3600 Alabama Ave. SE.

One gardener is needed to start helping around June 20 at the Burrville Elementary School, also in Ward 7. The volunteer is needed to maintain, grow and develop the garden program. A great opportunity for a gardener at 801 Division Ave. NE.

Beginning in May, the Mary McLeod Bethune Public Charter School is looking for five volunteers to help mornings or evenings at 1404 Jack St. NE. Volunteers can access this garden site during the weekends and help with planting, harvesting and gleaning.

Smothers Elementary school is requesting three volunteers, starting in June. The school has garden beds that will need watering two to three times a week, as well as weeding. Produce can be shared with community members, volunteers or school staff. Additional space for gardens is available as well. The school is located at 4400 Brooks St. NE.

In Ward 8, the Church of the Holy Communion, formerly the campus of Bishop Walker School, is seeking volunteers to help with garden beds that have been unattended since the school relocated. There are three to four, 15-foot-long beds with built-in weed barrier, irrigated on a timer. This offers an amazing opportunity to grow a lot of food and flowers in a lovely setting. The location is 3640 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.

You can read through the list of participating schools, the gardening needs and hours required at The link to signing up to be a summer volunteer can also be found at this site. Registration deadline is April 20.

Nadia Mercer and Lavonda Graham-Williams planting in the butterfly garden with Lavonda’s son Max last summer. Photo: Washington Youth Garden

DPR Community Gardens
Currently DPR has established gardens across the District and has over 30 community gardens under its jurisdiction. In Ward 7, there are three gardens with 70 plots; one garden, Soilful City Garden, is organized with no individual plots but gives gardeners opportunity to work together in the garden.

In Ward 8, DPR has five gardens with 58 individual plots and one garden that is operated by a nonprofit group called DUG (DC Urban Gardeners Network). DUG’s mission is to connect residents to local resources in order to create a lasting community within the growing movement for urban agriculture, food access and environmental sustainability. The Mothers Peace Garden located at Mississippi Avenue and 19th Street SE is one of DUG’s projects. More information can be found at

In addition to the garden plots, DPR’s Urban Garden Division offers 100 free workshops focused on practical urban gardening skills, environmental stewardship and nutrition and cooking education throughout the year. Upcoming classes include Advanced Growing Techniques Certification; Urban Agribusiness and Cooperatives Certification; Garden Carpentry Certification; and in August, Master Urban Composting Certification. Information about signing up for a class or a garden plot can be accessed through the website,

Taylore Willis, Cheryl Wonjar and Thea Klein-Mayer, educators at the Washington Youth Garden, break out in dance at a Saturday Family Garden Day. Photo: Washington Youth Garden

Fun Family Gardening Days
Maybe you and your family aren’t ready to adopt a garden plot. Or it is a summer when you will be traveling a lot and cannot commit to the responsibility of weeding and watering for three months. You have a great alternative at the US National Arboretum’s Washington Youth Garden.

The Washington Youth Garden is a program of the nonprofit Friends of the National Arboretum and has been teaching children about vegetables and gardening since the mid-1960s. Washington Youth Garden’s Demonstration Garden, on the grounds of the National Arboretum, is easily found nestled between Fern Valley and the National Grove of State Trees. A plus is that the garden is shaded for protection on hot summer days.

Starting on April 7, there will be a regular Saturday schedule of garden tasks for children and families. Nadia Mercer, head of the Washington Youth Garden, says, “Think garden-themed book reading at 10 a.m., weeding at 11 a.m. and worm feeding at noon.” A sampling of programs for the next few months includes soil and compost day on April 14, flowers and pollinators on May 12, and fruits on June 9.

The Washington Youth Garden also offers a chance for anyone to volunteer, which is another fun way to learn about gardening and connect to like-minded folks. The first orientation for this season is on April 7 at 9 a.m., but there are additional training dates the first Saturday and Tuesday of the month throughout the spring and summer.

For volunteering or attending a Family Garden Day, registration is required. Find a link to get you started at

After a cold, windy, wet winter, we are all ready for spring and summer. It isn’t too early to get your plans together. Before you know it, you’ll be harvesting your own lettuce and radishes under clear blue skies, with winter only a memory.


Rindy O’Brien has a plot at the King’s Court Community Garden and is former executive director of the Friends of the National Arboretum. Send ideas and comments to