Food and Friendship at the Southwest Community Garden

The Hill Gardener

Southwest Community Garden members gather at Lansburgh Park’s pavilion to discuss plans for the July 31 Fiskars Garden Makeover Day, one of only two of such Fiskars awards and the only one awarded in the United States. Standing (left to right): Sam Marrero, Coy McKinney, Bernice Boursiquot, and David Grant. Sitting (left to right): Bernice Yalley (back to camera), Kael Anderson, Kamilla Kovacs, and David Sobelsohn.

In a city where there’s concern for the environment, with a population that cares about a healthy and active lifestyle, and where people make great use of their public parks for recreation and activities, it’s not a surprise to see an increase in the number of District community-garden projects.

Residents meeting as an informal group a little over a year ago explored how they might start a community garden in Lansburgh Park, reclaiming land in a centrally located area with ample open space. With more regular meetings the group got a name (Southwest Community Gardens, SWCG for short), hosted fundraising activities, and started operating under the fiscal sponsorship of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA), facilitating a dialogue with the DC Department of Parks and Recreation.

Kael Anderson, SWNA’s president, noted, “We worked with Councilmember Tommy Wells to identify necessary funds to supplement the park restoration.” During this summer Lansburgh Park will see the addition of a dog park under the nonprofit community organization Paws of Southwest, as well as a community garden.

Kamilla Kovacs, newly elected president of Southwest Community Gardens, is “most excited about the garden’s ability to bring various constituencies in Southwest together – with programming that will include students, veterans, active-duty personnel at Ft. McNair, seniors – a place where people can truly relax and come together as a community.”

Southwest neighbor Bernice Boursiquot, who has a background in public health and an interest in gardening, was interested in the SWCG project because she likes to know when fruits and vegetables are in season and how to grow her own food. “We envision this garden with individual plots,” she says, “as well as a communal section – with programs for veterans as well as students at Amidon Bowen Elementary and Jefferson Middle School. Many people in our group are reaching out to various members of the community.”

Boursiquot, who serves as secretary of SWCG, started researching grants to identify additional funds to assist with the project. She wrote an application for a garden makeover at the end of 2012 and a few months later received some good news: the group had received the prestigious national Garden Makeover Day award from Fiskars Brands, Inc.

Fiskars started its Project Orange Thumb program in 2002 through a series of grants that provided funds and tools to garden groups in the United States and Canada. In 2008 they expanded the program to include two hands-on garden makeovers each year. The garden makeovers are valued at $50,000 each, with a mission to build a complete community garden in just one day. SWCG was the only US garden in 2013 to be selected for this makeover out of over 400 applicants. The other award went to a garden in Canada.

Kamilla Kovacs is enthusiastic about the award. “This will be a great boost to the project,” she declares, “allowing us to really get the garden up and running this season. We’re so incredibly thankful to have been selected for this highly competitive award – it truly speaks to the dedication of the many people coming together, working toward the goal of a neighborhood garden.”

Says Fiskars marketing specialist Ally Spaight, “I could tell from the high level of detail in the application that Southwest Community Gardens would be a great group to work with – but it was really the on-site interview that made this group stand out. The amount of community support for the project was outstanding, and it was very easy to tell how passionate the group in Washington, DC is about this garden. It is also really nice to see how the groups are working collaboratively – Southwest Community Gardens, Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, and DC Department of Parks and Recreation are all coming together for the benefit and greater good of the community.”

John Stokes, chief of staff for DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR),  echoes that sentiment. “We’re always thrilled when we have community partners – whether individuals, businesses or other agencies. In this instance, with Fiskars, we’re able to build on the mayor’s huge initiative – where we’re all being tasked with looking toward sustainability and improving the quality of life for all, as a part of the One City Plan.”

Out of 42 community gardens throughout the District, 13 are on DPR sites. Stokes says that they’ll be expanding that number by 10 this year, and the Lansburgh Park/SWCG location is part of that number. He adds that some of the community gardens are being implemented in tandem with the 30+ playgrounds being built throughout the city this summer.

Stokes says that part of his agency’s success with community gardens is the intergenerational bridge they provide – senior citizens working with youth. Community gardens work really well, he observes, when people have a space to gather for social and educational reasons or have outdoor classrooms where workshops can take place. “We’ve also seen great success when guest chefs can come in and work with the herbs and produce grown there – teaching onsite.” In DC this summer Chef Rock will be visiting a few of the community garden sites to speak about healthy and nutritious eating with kids. Says Stokes, “The students will have the opportunity to not only plant the produce but learn to cook with it.” SWCG member Sam Marrero is also anticipating collaborative work with area schools. “We’re excited to add another dimension, an eco-educational dimension, to the learning experience of the promising younger inhabitants of our neighborhood, the Amidon-Bowen elementary school students.”

Coy McKinney is an active Southwest neighbor who came to DC a few years ago. After graduating from law school he knew he wanted to follow his passion for urban agriculture. Now McKinney works as a consultant with the University of the District of Columbia’s on-campus farming initiatives and has volunteered to serve as the garden manager for SWCG, working on community outreach and volunteer coordination.

McKinney has been attending community meetings at apartment complexes, making presentations, and talking about the garden, looking to engage youth as well as public-housing residents on the SWCG project. “I was interested in urban agriculture and started attending some of the early planning meetings where it all seemed a little theoretical until the Fiskars’ garden makeover was awarded,” he notes.

During the time leading up to the Fiskars Garden Makeover Day, as community outreach continues, garden-design plans are being fine-tuned by a team from DC-based Moody Landscape Architecture. All are invited to attend the makeover day. Even if you don’t live in Southwest you may pick up great tips and skills you could use in your own garden.

The Southwest Community Garden at Lansburgh Park (1098 Delaware Ave. SW) welcomes Fiskars for its makeover day on July 31. Check-in will start around 7:00 a.m., when volunteers will be provided with t-shirts and be placed on a team, gather for breakfast, and mingle with neighbors. The first-dig ceremony will begin at 8:00 a.m. with the Fiskars president, and will kick off the garden work throughout the morning. Fiskars will also provide lunch and an ice cream break, and at 4:00 p.m. there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration of the newly built garden.

If you’d like to volunteer during the July 31 Fiskars Garden Makeover Day please respond by July 17 toswgardensdc@gmail.com or call 202-417-8577. For more information visit swgardens.org.


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