Seeing Green in a Concrete Jungle / by Robin Dienel

 Ingrid Wood, a community garden plot owner at Fort Totten Urban Organic Garden in northeast D.C., waters her 25-by-25 foot garden plot. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

Ingrid Wood, a community garden plot owner at Fort Totten Urban Organic Garden in northeast D.C., waters her 25-by-25 foot garden plot. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

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What do a basement, a roof, a backyard, and the Fort Totten Metro Station all have in common? Gardening.

Despite Washington, D.C.'s concrete buildings and limited green space, hidden gardens planted in out-of-the-way places are popping up all over the city. Urban gardeners are finding alternative methods to harvest their own crops and create a future, where urban agriculture can flourish in the District.

Just beyond the Fort Totten Metro, up a paved footpath leading over a slight hill, Ingrid Wood is watering her 25-by-25 foot garden plot that she rents for $25 a year at the Fort Totten Urban Organic Garden.

“A dollar a square foot,” Wood jokes.

Surrounded by trees and construction cranes, Wood points out her newest plants as an urban symphony of jack-hammers, saws and beeps bellows on through the April afternoon air. Construction on a new charter school towers over the scenic vista, but Wood and the other gardeners don’t seem to notice. A padlocked fence surrounds the plots to keep out pests, both of animal and human breeds.

“Last year we had a problem with the deer,” says Wood. “They came in and ate all our vegetables! All that work, gone!”

Every square inch of Wood’s plot is planted with some luscious-looking greenery. Some are recognizable crops, like tomatoes and strawberries, while others are lesser-known plants, like kohlrabi, cabbage’s less popular cousin. Other crops are little experiments that Wood is conducting, like a store-bought bag of organic potatoes she planted earlier that day just to see if they will grow.

 Ann Beman, acting director of the Neighborhood Farm Initiative, walking through her student's garden plots. (Photo by Robin Dienel)

Ann Beman, acting director of the Neighborhood Farm Initiative, walking through her student's garden plots. (Photo by Robin Dienel)

The Fort Totten Urban Organic Garden is run by the Neighborhood Farm Initiative (NIF), whose mission according to their website is to “promote collaborative, sustainable cultivation of food in urban spaces.” It’s located on land owned by the National Park Service. There are one hundred plots, some of which belong to NIF’s Kitchen Garden Education Program ran by Ann Beman, acting director of the NIF board of directors. The education program spans a year, and with a tuition of $500, participants gain hands-on experience in their own 12-by-12 foot plot. Last year, Wood says, most of the plots were vacant. This year, nearly every single one has been weeded and sewn.

Wood, an immigrant from Germany, has lived in the northeast D.C. neighborhood of Michigan Park for more than 22 years. However, she’s only had a plot at this garden for the past three years. During the growing season, she says, she’s always had enough to sustain herself, even from a young age.

 A little radish sprouts through some hay in one of the garden plots as a crane looms behind it. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

A little radish sprouts through some hay in one of the garden plots as a crane looms behind it. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

“My mom grew up on a farm in Germany, so we always had a huge kitchen garden,” says Wood. “In the summer we’d be shelling the peas, harvesting them, cutting them up, picking berries, making jam. It’s something I grew up with. I’ve always had a garden around my house,” which Wood admits she didn’t think would be possible in D.C.

“These gardens have always been here, but maybe lately there’s been a resurgence about food and nutrition,” says Wood.

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In December 2014, the D.C. Council passed the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act. D.C. Greens, a food education, access and policy nonprofit that runs The K Street Farm sitting on a 3/4 acre plot adjacent to the Walker Jones Education Campus, played a major role in getting this legislation passed.

Lillie Rosen, food access director at D.C. Greens, says the process started in 2013 when Gail Taylor, owner of Three Part Harmony Farm in northeast D.C., began working with Council Member David Grosso to draft the act. Rosen says Taylor was struggling to legally farm in D.C., and approached D.C. Greens in the winter of 2013 to ask for their help in pushing the legislation through. D.C. Greens gladly jumped on board, says Rosen, and organized other farmers to testify on behalf of the bill. One year later, the bill passed.

This new piece of legislation has made it possible for D.C.-based growers to sell their product in the District. It charged the Mayor to identify 25 parcels of District-owned vacant lots that can be used for urban agriculture. Once found, farmers can apply to access it. It also establishes a 90% tax abatement for private landowners who use, lease, or allow their land to be used for urban agriculture, and creates a tax credit for farmers to donate locally farmed fruits and vegetables to D.C. area food banks, pantries and shelters.

Rosen herself worked with several council members’ staff to revise the legislation, move the tax abatement from 50% to 90%, clarify language and make sure that nonprofits leasing their land for farming, like churches, did not lose their nonprofit status. The tax abatement was funded for fiscal year 2016, and is now in the regulation-setting phase. Once the regulations are put in place, deeper effects will start to take shape on farming in the District.

“It's been and continues to be an incredibly collaborative effort led by local farmers,” says Rosen. “I am so glad to have been able to support their work over the past two years.”

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But maybe this new legislation has already started to have a deeper effect. Mary Ackley, founder of Little Wild Things City Farm in 2014, decided in April of this year to take a year leave-of-absence from her position at USAID to work full-time on her farm.

“I had read all this stuff about small plot intensive farming, or SPIN farming,” says Ackley of how she first started to think of farming as a business she could make money doing.

“It’s a bunch of people trying to get together and think about how you can do farming in urban areas but with more of a focus on the entrepreneurial and business aspects of it.”
However, most SPIN farms are in smaller cities located in front and backyards, says Ackley, and a D.C.-sized backyard wasn’t going fit Ackley’s bigger farming ambitions.

One day, Ackley says, she was running by the Carmelite Friars Monastery in the northeast D.C. neighborhood of Edgewood when she looked at their land and thought, “that could work for a garden.” She emailed them about it, and found they had a quarter acre plot in the back she could use, and that’s how she got started.

Now, she has two farm locations, the other of which is in a dark, damp, windowless, basement.

 Mary Ackley, founder of Little Wild Things City Farm, waters her microgreens in the basement of The Pub and the People in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

Mary Ackley, founder of Little Wild Things City Farm, waters her microgreens in the basement of The Pub and the People in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

The outdoor basement steps of the recently opened Bloomingdale bar, The Pub and The People, are located right off North Capitol Street. Through the basement’s heavy metal door is a packed cellar of boxes, bikes, kegs, and...microgreens.

Yes, microgreens‒those little green leaves that can be seen perched on top of a fancy dish, like lobster risotto, usually served at high-end restaurants.

 Microgreens, the king of urban agriculture. Ackley says it's important to keep track of the microgreen planting schedule.(Photo by Robin Dienel.)

Microgreens, the king of urban agriculture. Ackley says it's important to keep track of the microgreen planting schedule.(Photo by Robin Dienel.)

“I was trying to market my microgreens here,” says Ackley of how she first met Nick Belman, owner of The Pub and The People, when she was just starting her business. She was going restaurant-to-restaurant selling chefs her microgreens that she had been growing on her farm at the Monastery when she ended up here, at the Pub.

“He said we have this basement and it’s not being used, so we cleaned out the basement and started here.”

 The newly opened northeast D.C. bar, The Pub and the People, opened in 2015. Shortly after, it became home to Ackley's basement microgreen operation. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

The newly opened northeast D.C. bar, The Pub and the People, opened in 2015. Shortly after, it became home to Ackley's basement microgreen operation. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

Now, shelving can be seen adorning two of the cellar’s walls. They’re both covered in black plastic pallets that are spilling over with different types of microgreens‒pea shoots, mustard greens, arugula‒which Ackley says are the “king of urban agriculture.”

The turnover rate of microgreens is so quick, about two weeks, that it allows urban farmers to quickly grow, harvest, sell, and repeat the process all year long. She sells them to different stores, restaurants and farmer's markets around the city.

“It’s uncharted territory,” says Ackley about what she thinks the future of urban farming and her business will look like in D.C.

“Everybody is trying to figure out the best way to do it. I’m making microgreen centerpieces for weddings. I make prepared salads topped with edible flowers. I have all these things I do that is not at all traditional farming.”

 The Love and Carrots sign stands amongst its urban garden installed outside of Brookland's Finest in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

The Love and Carrots sign stands amongst its urban garden installed outside of Brookland's Finest in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel.)

What does traditional farming look like in an urban setting? Meredith Sheperd, founder of Love & Carrots, thinks it looks like Cuba in 1989 after the Cold War, almost.

Cuba was already struggling to support its own food infrastructure following a deteriorating international trade reality due to U.S. embargoes during the Cold War. Then in 1989, Cuba was abruptly cut off from trade with the Soviets, sending the country into a spiraling economic crisis.

Throughout the next few years, Cuba struggled to trade its sugar and citrus fruits for more critical imports, like cereal, corn, and meat, and lost access to animal feed, fertilizers, and fuel which sustained the small island’s food provisioning system. Although the government instituted a rationing program to try and combat widespread hunger, most Cubans experienced it anyways. The Cuban government needed to do something. It needed to become self-sufficient.

 Meredith Sheperd, founder of Love & Carrots, working on an organic backyard garden. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Sheperd.)

Meredith Sheperd, founder of Love & Carrots, working on an organic backyard garden. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Sheperd.)

Cuba would become the first country to successfully weave urban agricultural methods into its food provisioning system. What were once guerrilla gardening initiatives soon became state-supported urban farming programs that were embraced by both the government and the communities they served. The government funded educational programs and provided space for growing, while the community farmed and cared for it. From balcony gardens to vacant and blighted properties, and roofing tiles used as planter beds to soda bottles repurposed to sow seeds, urban agriculture occurred in Cuba on various scales, and is what inspired Shepherd to start her own residential and commercial gardening business in D.C.

“They started planting on every little strip of the highway and everywhere that they could,” says Sheperd about Cuba. “People started planting food and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. From there, I started getting interested in urban agriculture.”

She took some horticulture classes, worked four different jobs: two as a farm hand, one as a wetland biologist and the fourth as a bartender. Eventually, she got a farm manager position at Chaily Farm in Virginia, which produces organic herbs and vegetables for high-end D.C. restaurants, like City Zen. She did that for three years, but she still wanted to pursue the idea of urban agriculture.

 A barrel garden installed by Love & Carrots outside of Brookland's Finest in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel).

A barrel garden installed by Love & Carrots outside of Brookland's Finest in northeast D.C. (Photo by Robin Dienel).

“At the time, my yard was really shady and small,” says Sheperd about how she came up with the idea for Love & Carrots six years ago in 2010.

“I really wanted to grow my own garden in D.C. and I was sad about my yard. I was biking around applying for all these urban ag’ jobs and salivating over everyone else’s big sunny yards thinking: they have such a great space, that person should be growing food in their own yard, why aren’t they?”

Then, she says, the idea clicked. She would build hearty gardens for other people. She sat at Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale, which would coincidentally become one of her future clients, for two days and dreamed up Love & Carrots. She posted flyers at different coffee shops, created a Groupon and spammed neighborhood Yahoo email listservs for her first clients.

On her first garden, she says, she lost a lot of money. It was a complete yard transformation. She enlisted the help of her friends and rented a truck to do the heavy lifting, but only charged $350 for the whole job.

“I felt bad charging people money for stuff,” says Sheperd. “But I got better at it.”

During that first summer Sheperd built 15 gardens. She hired another person, Morgan Morris, who still works for her now, and saved $2,500 to buy a truck. Sheperd says Love & Carrot’s profits flat-out doubled for the first three years and she now has a staff of 15. It was named one of Business Insider’s 50 Coolest New Businesses in America and Sheperd was awarded the Green American Award in 2014.

 A rooftop garden in Dupont Circle installed by Love & carrots. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Sheperd).

A rooftop garden in Dupont Circle installed by Love & carrots. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Sheperd).

“We’re providing people the support they need to get started and education they need to grow in a way that's not just frustrating with not great results, but support people throughout the season so they can see what they can get out of a garden,” says Sheperd.

“Once they’ve gardened with us for a couple seasons they’re pros and can take it over themselves. They share their extra vegetables with their neighbors, who see what they’re doing and will want to do it too.”

In addition to residential gardens, Sheperd is expanding their gardening initiatives to impact more communities and reach more people. They're building garden beds on rooftop terraces, restaurant patios, and school grounds. They’ve started managing community gardens and working with local area nonprofits.

Maybe Sheperd and her team will start building garden beds on highways soon, just like in Cuba.

“At the heart of it we try to take the intimidation out of growing food,” says Sheperd.

 What is the future of urban agriculture? (Photo by Robin Dienel).

What is the future of urban agriculture? (Photo by Robin Dienel).

So what do a rooftop, a basement, a backyard, and the Fort Totten Metro Station really have in common? Maybe not just gardening, but a future where D.C., and other cities like it, can completely self sustain itself.
Gone will be the days where organic produce is too expensive, or that cucumber at the Columbia Height’s Giant hails from Brazil. In its place, produce grown in the District. A government that understands the importance of self-sustainability. A rooftop that is no longer a vacant space but a thriving, living green space. An engaged community that understands the importance of maintaining a garden and the benefits they get from it.

“I’d like to get a contract with a developer who's putting in, you know, 15 row houses somewhere and each one of them gets a vegetable garden in the back,” says Sheperd about what she hopes to see more of in the future for Love & Carrots.

“They’re doing things with solar panels now, what about cookie cutter vegetable gardens? How cool would it be if you could buy a new home and get a little vegetable garden too?”


Here's a map of all the community gardens, farms, markets and rooftop gardens in Washington, D.C., as of April 2016.

Am I missing one? Send an e-mail to rdienel13@gmail.com