Katie Rehwaldt hoped that 50 people would show up. Instead, 150 appeared. “We ended up having to take over the whole second floor,” she said. That was 1O years ago at the Josephine Butler Parks Center in Columbia Heights, the inaugural site of Rooting DC.
Since then, attendance has climbed steadily for the assembly of urban horticultural enthusiasts that Rehwaldt co-founded, with Bea Trickett. For the 10th annual event, held at Wilson High School in Tenleytown on February 18, 2017, organizers said that turnout totaled 1,300.
“When the numbers climbed so quickly, obviously the demand was there and the community was literally growing itself,” Rehwaldt said. “I think we arrived because everybody is already here. I think we just walked in the room.”
Many horticultural organizations have operated in the city. But she said she saw that the grip on survival for some groups can be tenuous and that there was room for more cohesion, especially given the wave of interest in the subject that has been building around the country.
It was a busy scene under the high glass of the atrium at Wilson, where the event has been held for the past five years, with other stops at the former Washington Historical Society building and Coolidge High School.
Instructional sessions listed in the event program ranged from basics like making raised beds to more advanced activities like saving seed, using plants as medicine and growing your own cannabis.
Included was a “Chickens In Schools Certification Training” presentation from the city’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, as well as multiple talks about food justice, composting for social justice, a DC planning office “listening session,” and conversations about the Farm Bill in Congress and federal agency efforts to aid urban agriculture.
It was the first year for an appearance by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Agency communications coordinator Suzanne Pender, who was offering information to passers-by, said the service traditionally has focused on rural settings, providing technical and, at times, financial assistance for conservation. Some of those efforts have urban applications, including installation of drip irrigation, high tunnels for growing, and use of pollinator habitats and healthy soil practices.
“Extending our assistance to urban producers is still very new to the agency,” Pender stated. She added that the agency helped a charter school in the District of Columbia develop a garden. She provided contacts for area farmers interested in agency programs: Buddy.Bowling@md.usda.gov and Aaron.McCann@md.usda.gov.
The home field advantage went to the Wilson Greenhouse Club, whose members sold the sprouts of their labors, including peas, nasturtiums and herbs.
Rehwaldt, 39, a native Washingtonian who went to Wilson, said it costs about $12,000 to produce the event, which includes a couple of stipends to pay for temporary assistants, and it gets “a little more expensive each year.”
“We don’t want to have to charge people for the event,” she said. “That becomes a struggle. But people are very generous.” She said that support has come from DC Greens, which houses Rooting DC, and City Blossoms, which has aided with planning since the beginning, along with help this year from Common Good City Farm, and My Grow Connect, and Love & Carrots. “We ask people to contribute and, generally speaking, they do, and that covers a significant portion of the cost.”
Rehwaldt, who cultivates a 20-by-25-foot plot at the community garden off of Blair Road and works at the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation managing park partnerships, said that “you don’t have to be a professional food justice warrior” to attend the event and interest comes from a wide range of people.
“Yes, they want to learn how to keep their worm composting bin from getting really gross, or the best way to prune tomatoes,” Rehwaldt said, but what “they like most is the opportunity to meet and connect. It’s contributed to a more tightly knit community that collaborates.”
© 2017 John A. Bray