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Baltimore City Hall Garden Plots to Be Planted in Veggies

Crops will help to feed the poor at Our Daily Bread

by Susan Reimer

Baltimore, which sometimes carries a poor-cousin chip on its shoulder when it comes to the nation's capital, is about to trump the city to the south.

Garden designer Angela Treadwell-Palmer (right) and Baltimore's chief horticulturist and acting chief of parks, Bill Vondrasek, beside tulips in a garden plot in front of City Hall. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / April 1, 2009) Mayor Sheila Dixon is planning to turn the formal gardens in front of City Hall into vegetable gardens covering about 2,000 square feet. Michelle Obama's White House vegetable garden measures only 1,100 square feet.

"This was being planned before the White House," said Dixon, firmly. "We are not copying!"

The city will be planting decorative urns, about 70 window boxes and several formal raised beds with spring and summer vegetable crops that will benefit Our Daily Bread, which feeds 700 to 800 people a day and often finds itself, even in summer, relying on canned vegetables.

"We have a cook who is thrilled," said Kerrie Burch DeLuca, director of communications for the soup kitchen.

When asked how many recipes she had for Swiss chard, a favorite element in the design for the City Hall gardens, she laughed. "We will find some," she said. "Nothing will go begging. This is our happy day."

City Hall's move reflects the growing interest in vegetable gardens this year as consumers try to deal with a tough economy and concerns about health and food safety.

"This news about Baltimore is wonderful news," said Roger Doiron, founder and director of Kitchen Gardeners International, a Maine-based nonprofit that advocates for locally grown food and has campaigned for high-profile vegetable gardens. "It will inspire people to rethink the role cities can play in feeding themselves."

Doiron credits the Obama garden with creating a "domino effect" in the United States. "This is why we pushed so hard for so long," he said. "We knew [a White House vegetable garden] would have this inspirational potential."

This week, California first lady Maria Shriver announced plans for a vegetable garden at the Statehouse in Sacramento. Citizens in Flint, Mich., are planting a 2-acre vegetable garden in the middle of town. A garden is planned around the Kingston, N.Y., town hall, Doiron said, and the first family of Georgia is discussing an official garden. Maryland's first lady, Katie O'Malley, is planning a vegetable garden for Government House in Annapolis, too, despite the abundance of shade trees.

Planting for the Baltimore vegetable garden is expected to begin Saturday. The plantings will extend from the porches of City Hall across War Memorial Plaza to Gay Street.

"We have an opportunity to do something right here in front of City Hall," the mayor said. "We have a chance to lead by example and to inspire residents, to show that in an urban environment you can still maintain healthy eating."

The City Hall vegetable gardens will be more than bountiful - producing a very conservative estimate of $3,000 worth of everything from kale to corn.

They will be beautiful, too, said Angela Treadwell-Palmer, a landscape designer who planned the garden.

She at first envisioned a couple of small demonstration gardens: "I was thinking we could just show how pretty vegetables could be." But Bill Vondrasek, head of horticulture for the Department of Parks and Recreation, loved the idea and told her to run with it.

"The mayor set the tone with her cleaner, greener, safer, healthier Baltimore," said Vondrasek. "When you have her support, you start thinking about what you can do."

Although the scope of the city's vegetable garden might seem ambitious, he said, "The areas that will have vegetables are the same areas that the horticultural staff plants with annuals every year."

This year, the city will have extra help from the master gardeners who volunteer at the Cylburn Arboretum in Northwest Baltimore. Because of construction of a new visitors center this year, there is no vegetable garden. So they have some free time on their hands.

"This is a big effort on our part, as you might imagine," said Allan DeGray, a master gardener and volunteer with Cylburn who lives, coincidentally, in Gardenville in the city.

The Cylburn volunteers will maintain the beds, rotate crops from spring to summer vegetables and harvest the produce weekly so there is nothing on the ground to attract rodents - one of Dixon's chief concerns. Seeds are being donated by Baltimore's Meyer Seed Co. Water trucks that normally maintain the city's plantings will handle the watering.

"San Francisco did something similar last year," said Treadwell-Palmer, whose company, Plants Nouveau, introduces new plants to the market. "When you think about it, this isn't a whole lot more trouble than maintaining the bulbs and the annuals the city plants."

Treadwell-Palmer's plans are ambitious and her designs are classic.

The enormous urns at the foot of the City Hall steps will be planted with sweet potatoes and black pearl peppers. The 70 window boxes on the balustrade beneath the flags and in front of the bronze doors will be planted with a lime-green Swiss chard and more black pearl peppers.

Two of the beds near the parking lot will be demonstration vegetable gardens. "They are the perfect size for rowhouse vegetable gardens, and we'll plant the kinds of things that can produce enough food for a family of four," said Treadwell-Palmer.

The Cylburn volunteers hope to be there at lunchtime during the week to answer questions from visitors about growing their own vegetables.

In the beds around the flagpoles, gardeners will plant edible ornamentals: red mustard greens, red kale and leeks.

There will be rhubarb and cucumbers, acorn squash, cabbage, lettuce, peppers and zinnias for cutting along the fence that overlooks War Memorial Plaza (which will not be planted with vegetables because it is the site for summer festivals).

Perhaps the most charming aspect of Treadwell-Palmer's plan is for the four classic potage gardens. The raised planters will be filled with an "X" of herbs, including Italian parsley, sage, lavender and rosemary.

The four quadrants that the herbs create will be filled with kohlrabi, beets, celery, radishes, carrots, onions, eggplant and zucchini.

The farthest beds, across Gay Street from the War Memorial Building, will have elaborate bamboo trellises for cherry tomatoes, and stripes of red and green lettuce, to be replaced with summer crops of okra, collard greens and sweet corn, and with sweet potatoes tucked underneath.

The master gardeners from Cylburn gave Treadwell-Palmer a wish list of vegetables, and she used the design skills she learned at the University of Delaware to create a showpiece for the city.

"They had to show me that they could do this in a way that would benefit the city," said Dixon, who gave her blessing after she received assurances that the gardens would be maintained in a way to discourage rodents - and that her beloved tulips would remain.

"We will be planting the cool-weather crops in between the tulips," said Vondrasek. "About the time the tulips are done, we will be harvesting the lettuces and putting in the summer crops."

Will Dixon, who described herself as a "gardener-in-learning," be out in the plots, rake and pruners in hand? "Possibly," she said.

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