“Can’t” Is Not a Word to Use

Photograph By
Cheryl Corson

Dillon Davidson hammers while Brad Ogilvie and Jessie Brouwer support the frame.

The art of the possible is embodied in the 3 x 5 foot wooden raised garden bed William Penn House volunteers have just built and planted for a Northeast DC woman who has spent the last 60 years in this row house. This is her first vegetable garden.

She says she especially looks forward to eating her own fresh tomatoes, as we discuss approaches to possible competition with hungry squirrels. A roll of lightweight and inexpensive bird netting, easily obtained from neighborhood garden centers, fastened to four stakes in the garden bed’s corners, will help protect the green tomatoes as they start to ripen. A notorious white-faced squirrel known on the block as Albi is seen as a particular challenge, the woman says, adding hopefully, “but I haven’t seen him around for a while.”

Community Garden Volunteers

William Penn House is a Quaker center at 515 East Capitol St. founded in 1966 (http://www.williampennhouse.org). It is known to many, even internationally, though not to some locals who may have walked by it for years on their way to breakfast at Jimmy T’s on the corner. The center is full of interns, volunteers, guests staying in its 30-bed hostel, and a small, dedicated staff including Brad Ogilvie, program coordinator and organizer of the community garden effort. Environmental awareness is part of the William Penn House mission, and this latest effort to build modest garden beds for Wards 6, 7, and 8 seniors and underserved residents, while simple, has a big reach.

Ogilvie and a handful of volunteers and interns arrive at 10:00 a.m. on a recent Saturday. After a short organizational meeting upstairs they head for the center’s backyard and plant-staging area, and the garage, where they pick up pre-cut lumber, tools, and donated bags of soil to load into volunteers’ pickup trucks to take to two nearby sites.

Besides Ogilvie our work group consists of Dillon Davidson and Jessie Brouwer. Ohio native Davidson is a sophomore at Quaker-based Wilmington College in Ohio. His upcoming thesis project on international agriculture sounds more like a life’s work and will soon take him to Africa, Canada, and various U.S. locations. Though his interests are global he clearly enjoys this cellular-level agriculture project, encouraging the morning’s garden recipient to poke lots of peeled garlic cloves into the soil to help deter pests. 

Volunteer Brouwer is an IT consultant who lives in Southwest DC. She found out about this service opportunity through National Community Church on Barracks Row (https://theaterchurch.com/location/barracksrow), which organizes Second Saturday Serve, when volunteers gather at Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse at 201 F St. NE at 9:00 a.m. on the second Saturday of each month to sign up for a service opportunity for that day. Having picked the William Penn House, Brouwer lends her pickup truck and quiet, capable attitude to the raised-bed vegetable garden project. 

Feeding the Soul

This project is a good example of the simplicity valued by Quakers. Although fancier hardware is available, these 1 x 6 inch boards are just nailed together. It’s enough and keeps costs down. Each garden bed takes an hour or so to build and plant with a sampling that may include tomatoes, peppers, squash, cabbage, or melons. Recipients find the program by word of mouth and wait only a few weeks for their new garden after calling the William Penn House. To date 40 raised beds have been installed and there is a waiting list of 30 more, far surpassing the original goal of 25.

Ogilvie teaches others that the meaning of these gardens far exceeds their modest size. “We are changing how we relate to the land around us, and we’re going from food deserts to food hubs,” he says. “For some homebound seniors it improves quality of life and may even prolong life. These gardens feed people and they feed the soul.” 

Plants and People

This raised-bed project and the larger community garden movement of which it is a part connect people and organizations throughout the city and beyond. Ward 6 resident volunteers visit neighborhoods in their shared Anacostia watershed that may be physically near yet seemed worlds away. Volunteers from rural areas or other countries who may be experiencing an urban environment for the first time have been inspired to initiate similar efforts in their home communities. “What we all really want,” says Ogilvie, “is relationships, and this work facilities that. It’s consistent with the Quaker values of mindfulness, connectedness, and service.” 

The nonprofit organization Washington Parks & People donates the vegetable plants used by William Penn House in the raised beds. Since 2004 the nonprofit group has owned the Riverside Healthy Living Center, now home to DC’s first comprehensive community food hub. Together with support from a long list of public agencies the center operates a model urban farm and native reforestation nursery at its Marvin Gaye Community Greening Center adjacent to Marvin Gaye Park.

Marvin Gaye Park is a linear park along the valley of an eastern branch of the Anacostia River. A 30-minute walk from the Minnesota Avenue station on Metro’s Orange Line, the Riverside Center offers an amazing array of activities and green job-training opportunities (http://www.washingtonparks.net/riverside). On Thursday, July 2, the Riverside Center will host a potluck party and open house for volunteers and others who wish to see the Marvin Gaye Community Greening Center up close. Check their website for details.

Getting Involved

All are welcome to join William Penn House volunteer crews. Donations are also welcome for things like hammers, nails, toolboxes, hand pruners, garden gloves, plant stakes, and even blank plant tags. To learn what you can do contact Brad Ogilvie (brad@williampennhouse.org) or call 202-543-5560. 

You can also lend a hand to garden-bed recipients, particularly if you have grown vegetables before. Weeding, staking, and mulching the beds will be welcomed by some. Showing people how to tell when certain vegetables like peppers or squash are ready to eat may sound funny but can be a big help for first-timers. 

You can also grow a veggie or two in your own front yard. Our mental divide between edible and ornamental plants is slowly and surely dissolving, and the days of relegating any vegetable to a hidden corner of the yard are over. If you grow okra or collard greens in your front yard you may soon meet neighbors you never knew before, in the same way that dog owners talk at the dog park. 

As the Saturday William Penn crew fills empty soil bags with grass removed from the raised-bed area before heading out to their next stop, the new garden owner’s granddaughter, a recent DC high school graduate, chats with neighbors who are watching the new garden taking shape. Will she help with the garden, they ask? “I can’t,” she replies, “I have no green thumb.” Her grandmother softly intervenes, saying, “‘Can’t’ is not a word to use.” In a few weeks, perhaps, this next-generation gardener will eat a tomato that grew in her own yard and wonder what else is possible in gardening and in life.

Garden ingredients ready to bring to the site.
Grass and weeds are removed before the garden frame is placed.
Planting peppers, tomatoes, a squash, and a cabbage in the new bed.

Cheryl Corson is a local licensed landscape architect and writer working on Capitol Hill and beyond. She looks forward to attending the July 2 pot luck at the Marvin Gaye Center. For design assistance, visit www.cherylcorson.com. 

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