Planting Time: How Does Your Garden Grow?

Pat Taylor, a longti me community garden advocate in a Capitol Hill Community Garden.

It’s March, and while it’s been a winter of extreme temperature fluctuations, it’s high time to think about this year’s garden. Limits of time and space can provide challenges to Capitol Hill homes when it comes to gardening. Community gardens can provide a practical and neighborly option.

Community Gardens 101

Capitol Hill has 11 or so active community gardens, some on land ownedby DC Parks and Recreation and others on land owned by the gardens themselves. The number of plots varies by garden, while the plot size ranges from 24 to 80 square feet. Most community gardens are run by a board and operate under a set of bylaws. Almost all of them have an annual fee ranging from $50 to $100, while some also have an initiation fee used to cover water use costs, insurance, and compost delivery. Community gardens typically require tenants to take on at least one “communal task” such as weeding or watering common areas.

Finding up-to-date information on the location and point of contact for any community garden seems to be one of DC’s best kept secrets. A list of 2016 Capitol Hill community gardens is presented below. 

Community gardens are very popular these days, and most have waiting lists of more than a year. You may not be able to pick and choose which garden you want to be a part of, and you may find that creating a garden in your own yard is the better option. Either way, here are a few things to consider before undertaking a garden plot.

  • Commitment is important. Tenants are expected to maintain their garden during the season, and those who don’t can lose their plot. Done correctly, maintaining a garden plot should only take three or four hours a week, but that may include a quick but daily or even twice-daily watering visit during a hot, dry period. A plot near your home is going to be easier to maintain.
  • Some gardens are more child friendly than others. While gardens provide ample opportunity to play in dirt they also include a wealth of potential hazards for young gardeners. The Green Seed Community Garden bounded by 17th, 18th, E, and D streets SE is designed to accommodate children and even has enough community space to accommodate a moon bounce!
  • Not all community gardens are dog friendly. Ask. If a garden allows dogs at all, they must be on leash.
  • Check soil, fertilizer, and pesticide use. In urban areas it’s a good idea to have soil tested for heavy metals (copper, zinc, cadmium, and lead), which can be absorbed by some plants – and then by humans. A test can also provide recommendations for fertilizers based on any nutrient deficiencies. Most community gardens have had their soil tested and know its composition. Most raised plots have been filled with imported soil from a known source that is free of high metal content. You can have any soil sample analyzed by the University of Massachusetts Amherst ( for a small fee. Meanwhile DC Water is producing Class A biosolids fertilizer for use in DC community and school gardens. Some community gardens welcome these biosolids while others prohibit or discourage their use due to health concerns. Ask about rules regarding the use of any commercial products in the garden and any rules and ideas for protecting your plants from pests.
  • Consider composting. Most community gardens don’t allow composting on site (it attracts rodents) but will usually allow you to bring in your own. Some gardens provide compost that has been tested and meets certain standards.
  • Balance what you will eat with what’s practical to grow. How much kale will your family really consume in June? Staggered planting can prolong your harvest season and avoid food waste.

Pat Taylor is a long-time Hill resident and one of the founders of the community garden movement on Capitol Hill. In her years of gardening Taylor has found that crops such as salad greens, kale, chard, pole beans, herbs, and even okra grow very well in a small raised bed. “Unfortunately everyone wants to grow tomatoes, and especially heirloom varieties. These can be difficult to grow as community garden soil often carries viruses that blight or kill plants.” Taylor favors grafting heirloom varieties onto more vigorous rootstock. The National Arboretum will be offering a tomato grafting workshop on April 9. For other tips on urban gardening Taylor highly recommends Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening” as a primer. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.” 

A great resource for growing food in a small plot. Photo: Catherine Plume

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and a blogger for the DC Recycler:; Twitter @DC_Recycler.