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Cultivating Community: Gardens Sprout in Former Vacant Spaces

When Shekita Wilkins shares how elementary-school students interact with nature at a community garden just north of Penn Station, her pride is evident.

“Every time the students find a worm in the soil, they call everyone to check out the ‘fat, juicy’ worm they found,” laughs Wilkins, director of Barclay Youth Safe Haven.  The site at 302 East 20th St. used to be a vacant lot, but became an outdoor classroom in the spring.

“I love that they have gone from wanting to knock birds’ nests out of trees to observing and protecting the baby birds.”

Unlike the Safe Haven garden, many abandoned lots in Baltimore City are breeding grounds for crime and illegal dumping. Two local initiatives, Power in Dirt and Baltimore Green Space, work to preserve green spaces in Baltimore.

Power in Dirt, a Baltimore City initiative has transformed more than 700 lots and hopes to reach 1,500 by year’s end, says its citywide coordinator Christine Kingston. Baltimore Green Space has purchased three established, community-managed green spaces in Pigtown, East Baltimore, and Upper Fells Point and is currently processing four applications.

Power in Dirt works with Baltimore City’s water-access program, where garden-setters are installed and gardeners can hook up a hose for a $120 annual fee. Baltimore Green Space purchases abandoned land from the City for as little as $1 to guarantee land rights for the gardens.

The benefits of community greening can be far reaching. A study of Philadelphia, where similar efforts have launched, has  linked the greening of more than 4,400 vacant lots to reductions in gun assaults and vandalism. Another study found that vacant lots accounted for a $3.6 billion loss in property values.

Here’s a look at several efforts in the city to turn vacant lots into green spaces.

Oliver: The 6th Branch

The acre-and-a-half lot at 1501 North Bethel St. in Oliver was overgrown with invasive trees and trash accumulation. The 6th Branch, a veteran-led nonprofit, recruited volunteers to paint murals with the Veteran Artists Program and plant more than 100 trees and shrubs.

The garden, composed of native and native-hybrid trees, shrubs, and perennials, helps reduce stormwater run-off.
Ryan Stroup, the 6th Branch’s green projects manager, says Power in Dirt directed him toward fundraising resources.

Grants from the Home Depot Foundation, the Parks and People Foundation, and Constellation Energy paid for tools and plants. Power in Dirt and Van Engelen, sellers of wholesale flower bulbs, provided wood chips, trees, and bulbs.

“The money donated to our projects is reinvested back into the community,” Stroup says. “This helps reduce crime and inspires neighbors to take pride in their own properties.”

Waverly: Homestead Harvest Community Garden

When she and her husband moved to Waverly in 2003, Miriam Avins fell in love with the neighborhood—but not the vacant lot next door, which attracted drug debris and homeless people living in overgrown weeds.

Although new to the neighborhood, Avins found that the community was happy to help her revitalize the space. Her idea, the Homestead Harvest Community Garden, quickly grew.

“The idea of a community garden was much more needed than I originally thought,” Avins says.

Homestead Harvest received a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation and the University of Maryland Extension, an informal education system within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

After two years, the land went up for sale and the future of the garden was unstable. Avins launched Baltimore Green Space as a land trust to protect community-managed spaces by owning the land on behalf of neighborhoods. Gardeners at Homestead Harvest pay $20 for garden access, which includes water. The Community Greening Resource Network offers seed and plant giveaways and a tool library.

Jonestown: Exeter Gardens 

In Jonestown – the area north of Little Italy and booming Harbor East – some residents are working to create healthy, affordable food options with Exeter Gardens. Baltimore landscape architecture firm Mayan Rykiel Associates Inc. is designing the 1,800-square-foot green space, to be completed in the fall.

“There are children who have never seen a tomato growing on the vine,” says Exeter Gardens Co-founder Hasdai Westbook.

Co-founder Lindsay Thompson grew weary of the rat-infested warehouse by her home behind Attman's Deli. After lobbying with neighbors to have the warehouse demolished, she and Westbook contacted Power in Dirt to start a garden to help navigate the city’s bureaucracy.

Exeter Gardens has partnered with the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which will teach how food is grown, harvested and cooked, says Education and Program Coordinator Elena Rosemond-Hoerr.

Planted herbs, spices and vegetables will hopefully honor the area’s Italian, Jewish, African-American, Greek, and American histories, says Mahan Rykiel Associate Principal Joe Burkhardt.

Donated plants from Waterfront Kitchen’s greenhouse are placeholders until the full design launches in the fall. Exeter Gardens hope to sell produce at farmers’ markets and is exploring ways to create a sustainable agricultural business.

Upper Fells Point Community Garden

“It was empty lots of trash with a thriving rat population,” says Jan Mooney, the Upper Fells Point Community Garden co-chair, of the formerly abandoned lots at 1827 East Pratt St.
Three years ago, Baltimore Green Space formally purchased the Upper Fells Point Community Garden from the city. Since then, the garden has received awards for its peppers and as a youth garden plot. The space works as a space for pumpkin carving and potlucks.

With Parks & People Foundation grants totaling $1,250 and another $1,200 from fundraising, the garden’s sidewalk will  receive a facelift in three months. Pervious material will control stormwater run-off. A local artist is designing a mosaic while students from Wolfe Street Academy are creating tiles.

The Upper Fells Point Community Garden began in 1987, when community gardens were uncommon in Baltimore.  Rather than see the space become a refuge for drug dealing and greater rat infestation, neighbors overtook the visually unappealing lots.  

Over the years, as many as 50 people have worked on the garden, Mooney says.


Lindsay Thompson and Hasdai Westbrook, founders of Exeter Gardens / Photo by Steve Ruark

Barb Moore at Upper Fells Point Garden / Photo courtesy of Baltimore Green Space

Upper Fells Point Garden / Photo courtesy of Baltimore Green Space

Upper Fells Point Garden / Photo courtesy of Baltimore Green Space

Upper Fells Point Garden gate / Photo courtesy of Baltimore Green Space

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