An Urban Farming Renaissance in Our Nation’s Capital

Buttoned-up Washington, D.C. is seeing a surge in free and low-cost classes on digging in the dirt.

On an April evening in northwest Washington, D.C., 11 gardeners sat at picnic tables watching Eriks and Andrejs Brolis, co-owners of Urban Farm Plans, a landscape design company and urban farm school. Some participants looked as if they’d hurried straight from the office, wearing dresses or button-down shirts; others sported T-shirts and jeans.

“Has everyone used a hammer?” Eriks asks. All nod. “How many people have hit their thumbs?” He gets laughter—and a few more nods.

The instructors move on to discuss hex- and star-socket screws, and power drills with adjustable torque. Notepads open and smart phone go on, as students reach the end of their knowledge base and begin to take notes. Soon it’s time to get up and plug in the power tools.

This Garden Carpentry class filled up just minutes after it was posted online, and it’s one of the nearly 100 urban farming classes offered in D.C. at little to no cost this summer. Creating that volume of learning opportunities is no small feat for any metropolis, let alone a city of only 660,000. But for many who live here, this surge won’t be surprising. Washington, best known for lawmaking and politics, is experiencing a boom in urban gardening and farming and there’s a lot for folks to learn.

At 2,600 community garden plots, D.C. has now surpassed Portland, Madison, and San Francisco in the number of plots per capita. Since the Rooting DC forum started offering an annual day of urban agriculture workshops, an information fair, and piles of free seeds in 2008, attendance has bolted from 125 to 1,400.

In addition to private classes, the farm-curious can look to the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) for everything from Urban Garden 101 to classes on vertical gardening and urban fruit trees. Participants can take their garden bounty up a notch with workshops like How to Make Kefir and Garden Tinctures.

“We have such a huge array of very relevant and innovative topics,” says Josh Singer, community garden specialist for the city department. Most of these topics are tailored to those putting down roots in containers, window boxes, and community garden plots no bigger than a parking space.

Though Singer is the force behind the bulk of the new classes, he talks of the boom—and those who have stepped in to teach for free—with an air of wonder. “In the last two years, not only did DPR double their community gardens, but it also created one of the largest garden education programs in the nation made up of the leaders and organizers of one of the fastest growing urban ag movements in the nation,” he says.

Motivated Washington gardeners can also deepen their knowledge over time with a four-month organic food growing class from the nonprofit Neighborhood Farm Initiative (NFI) and the grassroots herbal program from the veteran organization Centro Ashe. And the Washington Youth Garden has been actively educating people at the National Arboretum since at least the 1970s.

All told, residents can choose from more than a dozen classes every month of the growing season, compared to just a handful offered in most other cities.

Granted, measuring urban agriculture education between cities is a bit like comparing avocados to arugula. In some cities, a web of nonprofits and government offer instructional classes on seed starting or bee keeping sprinkled into a schedule of informational tours. In other areas, potential gardeners must make the trip to a master gardener program at a suburban university.

But here’s one comparison: In June 2015 alone, D.C. DPR hosted 10 garden-focused instructional workshops right in the city, while about the same number of classes were advertised by the agency’s counterpart in New York—an exponentially larger city known for its love of local food.DC3

So what made 2015 the year of the great D.C. garden boom?

Those watching the growth say a number of factors converged to make this happen.

Lauren Shwebel Beil, executive director of DC Greens, an organization that links food organizations around the city and now runs Rooting DC, says the reasons vary. “Some people are interested in growing their own food for economic or health reasons. Some people are ‘ag-curious’ because it has an aura of cool around it. For many, it’s a way of reclaiming the food system and rejecting processed or factory-farmed food,” she says.

Walter Allen, a longtime gardener and manager of the Hillcrest Garden in southeast Washington, who holds a doctoral degree in holistic studies, says the expansion is only natural. Growing your own food is en vogue, he admits. “But that trend has helped us to be reminded of our agricultural background, our agricultural legacy.”

Many horticulturalists just start later in life or need practical steps to move forward.

Sarah Comer, a participant in a recent class called Bang for Your Buck: Gardening on the Cheap, appreciated the class instructors’ discussion of raising organic versions of the Dirty Dozen, or the kinds of produce found to have the most pesticide residue on them. “They talked about which veggies would be the best return on investment and worth the growing,” she says. “But I also loved that they reminded us to ultimately grow what we actually want to eat.”

For student Alix Davidson, Garden Carpentry was just the nudge she needed. “I’m a pretty lean-in kind of person, but power tools have always intimidated me,” she explains. “Not anymore! I used my new-found confidence to use the cordless drill—which I’ve owned for six years but always gotten someone else to use—to make self-watering containers. I also helped build compost bins at two community gardens in D.C.”

Volunteer energy is key to this surge. In addition to experts donating their time for the DPR classes, Rooting DC is all volunteer-run, and every community garden seems to have a resident ag aficionado.

Recent legislation has also supports a plant-friendly environment. The D.C. Healthy Schools Act, passed in 2010, led to more demand for locally grown food in cafeterias and a proliferation of school gardens. The Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014 (PDF) requires the mayor to set aside vacant lots for urban farming and offers tax incentives to anyone who leases land for agricultural use.

Supportive programs like a tool share and compost network from DPR help gardeners gain confidence. And that momentum is important .

“I believe it’s these types of support programs that make the difference between a temporary movement and a new reality,” says Singer.

Perhaps the most crucial element, though, is a low-stakes invitation to put spade to earth with a knowledgeable guide.

“[Hands-on classes] remove the intimidation factor,” says Robinne Gray, executive director of Neighborhood Farm Initiative. “People seem grateful when there’s someone there with real experience who they can ask.”

Gray says several NFI alumni have even gone on to launch careers in urban agriculture.

Whether students shed their suits and don overalls full-time, or remain weekend weeding warriors, one thing is clear: Washingtonians are bucking the stereotype of dirty politics with a real interest in cultivating the soil.

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