As a regional "forager" for Whole Foods, Mark Smallwood spends much of his time making sure the green grocer stocks local food, usually from commercial farms. But if he has his way, some products will come from even closer: Baltimore's community gardens.
To make that happen, he has hatched a plan to vastly expand the number of city residents who know how to grow fruits and vegetables - as well as how to cook, preserve and sell them. He's negotiating with the city for a site, likely in northern Baltimore, large enough for gardening classes and some individual plots. And he's applying for grants to cover some of the costs. "There's no reason why you can't grow your own food in the city," said Smallwood, an organic farmer who points to his own planted Woodberry yard as evidence. "This is a years-long project that aims to get a lot of people involved."
Smallwood said many seeds are already planted: He's one of many urban and suburban dwellers growing food at home or in community gardens from Upper Fells Point to Rodgers Forge. And people are turning out in droves at area farmers' markets in downtown Baltimore, Towson and Annapolis, among others, fueling a nationwide increase in markets by more than 25 percent since 2004, according to government statistics.
Across the nation and Canada, there were 18,000-20,000 community gardens last year, the American Community Garden Association estimates. A Baltimore group has tracked nearly 100.
Miriam Avins, a local gardener, is working to preserve them. She used a fellowship won in 2007 from OSI-Baltimore to create a land trust called Baltimore Green Space (baltimoregreenspace.org), and it bought the Upper Fells site.
Neighbors had worked the abandoned public property between two Pratt Street rowhouses for years before they began to worry that rising property values would tempt the city to sell to a developer. There are 13 individual gardens, and those who tend them say it's been a gathering spot, a beautification project and a food source.
One plot is tended by Jan Mooney and her husband Kurt Schiller, who is the garden manager. It has flowers, lettuce, black beans, herbs and other plants.
"We're big on sharing," said Schiller, as he pointed to the varied collection of flowers and food. "This is a big asset to us and the community."
The neighborhood began trying to buy the property in 2002, but city officials wanted $40,000. They settled for about $4,000, including taxes and transfer fees, after Avins and council members joined the cause. Avins says city officials have since had a "real change in thinking" about the benefits of gardens. Baltimore's new Office of Sustainability recently hired her to create a formal process for selling to the trust at little cost.
Beth Strommen, manager of the office, said the city has a plan to develop more "community managed open spaces" that could be a garden or other use. They also are pushing more backyard vegetable gardens and urban farms that can sell food. Together, she said, they are good for neighborhoods, the planet and the economy.
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"They strengthen communities by giving them recreational space or healthy food," she said. "They are good for the environment because if they're green they're not polluting. ... And they are good for the economy because they stabilize communities and increase property values."
The city's effort is ongoing. But more immediately, officials are looking for more candidates for the trust. Avins and the local green activists group Parks and People Foundation have been documenting community managed open spaces. They've counted 93 so far, mostly on city property that Avins said could have been left to drugs, litter or ill-suited development.
"A lot of properties were simply abandoned," said Avins, who got the trust idea after the garden she started next to her home in Waverly was threatened by a developer. "Instead, they've become beautiful gardens, green spaces that raise quality of life and property values around them."
Others in and around the city are finding ways to use private property for community gardening. In Rodgers Forge, for example, Joseph Hamilton has started a blog called the (theforgefarm.blogspot.com/) Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative to account for gardens there. It also aims to hook up those with time but no space and vice versa.
In Baltimore, Smallwood calls his garden program City Fresh - borrowed from a similar program in Cleveland. The effort, he said, will create a healthier population and a more sustainable city by expanding on existing gardening and developing nascent interest.
He wants to involve church and community center kitchens for cooking lessons and food pantries. And he plans to open a cannery for preserving and teaching local teens to sell to groceries such as Whole Foods, restaurants and the public. With his employer's blessing, he then plans to repeat the process around Baltimore and other cities.
Back in his Woodberry yard, Smallwood shows off his garden filled with raised beds of vegetables and herbs. He has a greenhouse with some egg laying chickens and starter plants. There's a beehive in the back near a compost pile. There's also a rain barrel with goldfish to eat the mosquito larvae and a cat and two dogs to keep watch.
"To save space, you plant the beets and radishes together, which are the slow growing and the fast growing, and you plant the tall plants like tomatoes with anything that needs shade," he said, launching into a lecture he plans to give in his future community gardeners. He has more: on soil, on timing, on organic fertilizer, on conservation.
He explains how the food can be made into meals in his future community kitchens, and how it can be preserved as sauerkraut, pickles and preserves in the canneries he wants to open.
"Anyone can do this. Get a pot and some dirt and you can grow something."