by Marjorie Rachlin
Recently I have made several visits to the Melvin Hazen Community Garden on Sedgwick Street, where 101 of our neighbors have plots. It’s lush and green — the tomato plants are blooming now, carrots and beet greens are a foot high, and gardeners have been picking lettuce for weeks.
This garden was originally a Victory Garden, set up by the National Park Service in World War II. Presently the Melvin Hazen Community Garden Association oversees it. Karin Adams, the elected president, lives in the Van Ness apartments and is glad to talk to people who want information (244-3140). The association also has a web site: sites.google.com/site/melvinhazengarden.
There are 101 plots, neatly laid out between paths of wood chips, each garden 200 square feet. The gardeners come mostly from the apartments up and down Connecticut Avenue, although I met a few from nearby houses whose yards are “too shady.” They grow almost every kind vegetable imaginable, though tomatoes, peppers and squash seem to be favorites at the moment.
There are few flowers because of an old Park Service rule of no more than 5% flowers.
On one recent visit I talked to Cindy, busy tying up her tomatoes, already five feet high. She’s a young mother, from Van Ness, and she starts seven varieties of tomato from seed on her apartment windowsill. “I grow the old reliables, but every year I try at least one new one,” she said. “This year it’s Moscovitz.”
Nearby, a couple from Cleveland Park was pulling up pea vines, already browning at the end of their season. “We’ve been eating great snap peas and snow peas but they’re going. Next it’s the fava beans and the blackeyed peas – my wife has a great Texas recipe for blackeyed peas.”
“Do you have trouble with critters?” I asked, wondering about deer. The deer are fenced out, I learned, but not the rabbits. Of course, someone told me later, we also have raccoons, chipmunks and squirrels, but the rabbits are the problem.
Although the garden is sunny along the street, plots are shady where it backs up on the trees of the Park. These are less desirable gardens, and this is where most new gardeners get a plot. I talked to John, a second-year gardener who says he waited five years to get a plot. It’s sunny for a few hours at one end. “I hope cucumbers will grow in this shady part” he said, “and I put the tomatoes at the sunny end. I found out last year that basil does great, so we will have lots of that for pesto and to give away.”
John thinks there should be more such community gardens, now we are all being “green and grow-your-own.” He’s right. Most of the ones I know are on Park Service land, but possibly the District could find spaces. Karin says there is a waiting list of 200 and it takes several years to get a plot, though sometimes people share.
The community association manages the garden and keeps it up to Park Service standards. “The rules are that a plot has to be planted, weeded, the produce picked, and it must be cleared in the fall,” Karin said. “Everyone is responsible for keeping the paths up on two sides of their plot.”
Overseeing this is a committee of gardeners who inspect the garden regularly in the warm months, and send a notice to anyone who falls behind. Sure enough, I found Philip, an older man, busily weeding the overgrown end of his plot. “I’ve had it for fifteen years,” he said, “I don’t want to get a notice.”
I went to see the garden again on a hot Sunday, with a prediction of 90 degrees. I had been watering my garden the night before. When I got there, people were busy. Luckily the Park Service arranged for water spigots years ago.
Andy talked to me, hose in hand. He’s an expert gardener who has had a plot for 30 years. He starts early in the season. On February 28th he planted lettuce, spinach and radishes. They are cropping now – and he’s also growing potatoes, collards, brussel sprouts, turnips, chard and edamame, plus other common vegetables.
Andy is one of the few gardeners who puts in a cover crop in the fall, a common farm practice. He sows rye, crimson clover or hairy vetch, then forks it over in the spring to enrich the soil. The tops become mulch.
Nearby was Mike, who had bicycled over from Van Ness. He’s trying turtle beans this year, just for fun. He was watering a little four-foot square of flowers, his ten-year- old daughter’s garden. Mike has an ingenious solution to the mulch problem: he went online and asked his friends to save their grass clippings.
Kate was hoeing a strip along the edge of her garden, where her tomatoes were standing tall. She lives in a nearby apartment, has been gardening for ten years, and loves the whole feel of the garden.
“It’s a community unto itself.” she said. “I’ve met people I would never have known even from my own apartment complex.”
She paused. “”Hello Anna,” she called to a new arrival.
“It fosters a connection with people and with nature,” she said.
She echoed my feeling. The garden at Melvin Hazen is a social spot, a local asset that builds a sense of community in our neighborhood.