A ribbon of community garden at Hardy Park has steadily worked its way along the fences of the ball courts and play areas, as longtime neighborhood residents and newcomers pursue the will of their green thumbs.
An organized garden push at the Foxhall Village-area public park started about 10 years ago with five plots by a kickball court and has steadily gained ground.
“I think having more and different uses of the park makes a more vibrant community space,” said Caitlin MacKenzie, who helped get the project started and is a former manager of the plots. “It’s part of the community experiment in working and growing together.”
It’s a trend across the city, one the Department of Parks and Recreation, which oversees Hardy Park, seeks to support, according to agency Community Garden Specialist Josh Singer.
His city tally includes 34 agency community gardens, five urban farms and 50 compost cooperatives. Education programming includes scores of courses, old greenhouses are being renovated and a tool-sharing program was started about two years ago.
A community garden can be a thorny proposition.
“A lot of our gardens, unfortunately, divide communities,” Singer said, noting as an example that a garden might come in with a gentrifying neighborhood and leave out longtime residents. “It can actually build a lot of tension. We’re trying to work on different models, opening it up more. It’s definitely a struggle.”
Gardens backed by the agency must have a plan to involve the community, which can be a lengthy undertaking and act as a deterrent. “People are busy,” he said. “They don’t really have a year to spend outreaching.”
The Hardy Park garden has drawn a mix of people from the area. Demand has been enough to drive expansion to 26 plots, but not so high thus far to bar entry, with some spaces going unclaimed and allowing the ambitious to expand their base.
The plots are managed via the Friends of Hardy group, which collects an annual $50 fee for participation, according to Michael Battaglia, who serves as garden manager. The money goes to garden maintenance, such as the purchase of fencing.
The city parks agency has tweaked a field house closet to accommodate gardeners, fitting an outer door with a code lock for convenient and safe equipment storage, and moving a water spigot to an outside wall to ease access for watering.
Battaglia has gardened at Hardy for about five years. The community garden offered more room than his MacArthur Boulevard apartment to grow his tomatoes, eggplant, basil, beans and jalapeno peppers, thought it pales in comparison to his memory of his Philadelphia grandfather’s garden.
“His whole backyard was a massive garden,” said Battaglia, who grew up in New Jersey. “There was everything imaginable.” But he’s ahead of his parents, who he characterized as “some-basil-maybe” gardeners. “One day when we buy a house we’ll have a big garden.”
Hardy’s garden is burgeoning beside horticultural development on the adjacent site of a a former public school, which is now leased by The Lab School of Washington. A science teacher led conversion of a swath of the grounds into diverse gardens that have been integrated with instruction.
In addition to outreach, there is the community garden challenge of reach-in.
“Some people think their vegetables are being stolen and they want to put up signs,” Battaglia said. “I just think that they aren’t really necessary.” Battaglia suspects animals – and of more than one sort of intrusion. To deal irrigation by dogs, he leaves fallow space between the fence and his plants, hoping the crop will be out of range.
Nate Blodgett, who followed his wife to Washington, D.C., from southern California, tends a corner spot with a clear southern exposure. He also settled an unoccupied plot in a stretch that was shaded, at least until recently, when the tree blocking the sun was toppled by high winds and hauled away. “It was good for sugar snap peas,” Blodgett said of the erstwhile tree’s cooling effect. “But as soon as they removed it, that sun killed ‘em out real quick.”
Blodgett’s pepper patch has thrived, including high-flame varieties like Scotch bonnet and tobasco. He’s working the harvest into recipe testing for District Spice, his salt-free seasoning business.
MacKenzie, who grew up in Burleith, gardens with her daughters and husband in two plots.
“We have found great success with tomatillos,” she said of the plants packing their garden. They bear green, tomato-like fruits that ripen in their own papery wrapper. “We’re into the tomatillos. Noel makes a wicked good salsa,” she said of her husband. The recipe calls for cilantro, but it comes from the market. “It’s not that much real estate,” she said. “You have to choose.”