By Matt Koehler

Sunflower alley, waiting in anticipation; Courtesy of SW Community Gardens

Every spring, we look forward to the opening of the SW  Community Gardens at Lansburgh Park in Southwest DC. For the last several years, during the growing season we’ve been going to Gardens at least once a week to drop off compost (more on that below), plant, weed, do projects (I once showed up to weed but instead helped put several new wheelbarrows together), get some exercise, chat with neighbors, or generally help out with whatever needs to be done. 

This year, the Community Gardens opened up as per usual but due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there was no celebration to set the season off. Instead, the Garden opened up with less fanfare but still with a mission to grow food, provide a safe outdoors space for people to work and learn, and connect the community. I asked the Garden managers, Coy and Pam McKinney, what they are doing this season in terms of gardening and about their guidelines during the pandemic. Here’s what they had to say: 

When did you open this season? 

Pam: We opened the communal section on March 28. Given the current pandemic, we are only allowing four volunteers per scheduled work hour. 

What concerns did you have opening during a pandemic? 

Pam: I was and am concerned about not allowing kids in the garden like we normally would. We usually have a lot of kids come visit. Now we can only allow them in if a parent signed up to come by. I hate telling kids they can’t come into the garden because of social distancing.

On that note, what rules do you have for people coming to the Garden this season? 

Pam: We ask that volunteers sign up before coming to a work day, and only four volunteers can come during a work hour. They must also wear gloves and a mask, which we take home and wash (the gloves) after each work day.

Have you been seeing a steady stream of people coming in to help out? 

Pam: Yes! We’ve had new and returning volunteers come to the garden. We’ve had a few families come, which is really fun to see them work together to care for the garden. Our digging bed is still popular with kids. We just have to ask parents to stay with their kids if they are younger. Some kids that come to the garden with their parents have been coming for a while, so they are used to the garden rules. We haven’t had any problems finding volunteers, even when it was colder in April.

What projects is the Garden doing right now? A wish list for readers who may show up to help out at some point? 

Volunteers prep a community bed for planting;
Courtesy of SW Community Gardens

Coy: We have spent the spring expanding sunflower alley, and we’d like to extend it even further (pro tip: check out Lansburgh Park in July). This involves some digging and weeding. A volunteer, Mark, spent a few weeks getting rid of all the weeds inside the garden, which was a huge help. We’re sure the weeds will be back though.

Other projects could include painting garden signs, watering, and planting as seeds come in.

What are you growing right now? Anything different from last year? Anything in particular you’re looking forward to seeing in the next few weeks/months, vegetation-wise? 

Coy: Right now we’re growing garlic, spinach, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, Swiss chard, peanuts, beets, snap peas, grapes, hardy kiwis, some herbs, strawberries, and blackberries. We’re waiting on our backordered seeds to plant the rest of our crops.  

Pam: I always look forward to the blackberry harvest. They should be ready in mid-June, and since they grow along the southern side of the garden fence, anyone coming by can grab a blackberry to taste. Just remember that the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice! In other words, they should look dark purple and not have any pink on them. I’m also excited about our sunflowers. Our volunteers planted a lot more this year, especially as they helped expand this section of the garden. It’s going to be so beautiful come July! 

How’s composting going? I assume there will be no competition this year but that doesn’t mean SW Community Gardens isn’t still producing high quality compost, right?

Coy: Our compost cooperative still functions 24/7/365. Every Sunday, a small group of cooperative members sign up to aerate, water, and move the piles. Last fall, we joined a pilot program that was launched by the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) in conjunction with Loop Closing to track how much our neighbors are composting. While some members use it consistently, others do not. Nonetheless, since November 2019, SWesters have diverted over 400 pounds of food waste from contributing to climate change, by decomposing in a landfill where eventually it creates the greenhouse gas methane, to instead organic soil we can use to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. 

Speaking of Composting, do you have any more open slots for future composters looking to reduce waste? 

Coy: Our compost cooperative still has room to grow. Interested neighbors should read through DPR’s best practices handbook, then stop by the garden during a work day for the in-person tutorial, and in addition the cooperative’s Google Group.

Do you have any words of encouragement for the community? Perhaps expound on the values of getting outside and possibly doing some good old-fashioned gardening? 

Pam: I think this experience has felt very isolating for a lot of people, and I hope the garden can offer some sense of connection to Mother Earth and each other. Personally, I’ve noticed so much more all the flowers and trees around SW and their subtle changes I never took time to see before this. If you have children, a fun activity for them could be to create a garden journal in which they observe the same plant each week and write or draw what they see. It helps them to develop curiosity in nature and recognize the little changes that lead to a big change (e.g. a few little leaves and stem turn into a beautiful bloom with bees searching for nectar). 

Anything I missed that you want to include? 

Great green stalks of growing garlic!; Courtesy of SW Community Gardens

Coy: If you’d like to stay connected to the garden, email to be added to our e-newsletter list. You’ll receive notification of our harvests and other activities, as we plan to give away everything we grow for free. 

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