BY SCARLET SALEM — Many spend their long summer days idly soaking up the sunlight, but some of Hyattsville’s outdoor enthusiasts put that sunlight to other uses — honing their horticultural skills. These plant enthusiasts help keep Hyattsville green, quite literally. It’s time to meet some of your green-thumbed neighbors.
If you drive past Hyattsville’s community garden at Hyatt Park, you are likely to see Katie Ablard busy at her plot. She co-leads the community garden with Mary Graham.
“This year we have grown an incredible crop of tomatoes and right now we have been picking about 10 pounds a day, so we have all been making tons of salsa and pasta sauce and eating them by the slice,” Ablard said.
The Hyatt Park garden was started five years ago when the city council voted to turn it into a garden. Since then, the garden has been filled with all sorts of crops and plants including sunflowers, squash, garlic, leafy greens, and even plants with international origins.
“There are people who are international who grow plants from around the world, like green beans grown that are over a foot long,” Ablard said.
“A couple of people have mentioned how interesting it has been, as we get to know other gardeners, not only a variety of people’s backgrounds, but everyone seems to have a family history of gardening … because their parents or grandparents grew vegetables and they wanted to reconnect,” Ablard said. Reconnecting with the land is just one way in which the garden maintains its community spirit.
“There is a great community connection [at the garden]. Pretty much everyone I talk to about why they like the garden has said ‘grow interesting vegetables, cook what you grow, health benefits of knowing where your food comes from,’ but also the community aspect, meeting people you might never have met. People are very helpful and answer questions and help each other out,” said Ablard.
Each of the 34 plots in the garden is occupied, but Hyattsville residents interested in a plot are able to sign up for a spot on the waitlist through Hyatt Park’s website.
Another Hyattsville resident who grows in Hyatt Park is Laura Reams, who has a plot and has served as Plot Coordinator for the last 5 years.
“One of the best things about the garden is that you can plant year round. Although I have been gardening for some time now, I still consider myself a novice, as I find that I learn lessons each season,” said Reams. “My fellow gardeners are always willing to offer up suggestions and helpful advice.”
This year, Reams is growing tomatoes, squash, hot peppers, lettuce, onions, pumpkins and sunflowers.
Membership fees for the nonprofit garden are $30 annually and “each gardener is required to complete 4 work hours a season to the garden, either through a volunteer position or by participating in a “work day,” doing regular maintenance such as mulching, weeding, working in the compost bins, etc.,” said Reams.
That $30 seems to pay dividends beyond fresh produce. “I joined the garden in the spring of 2011, right at the beginning, which was not long after my family moved to the City,” she explained. “For me, joining the garden was my first opportunity to get to really know and love the community of Hyattsville. The garden has been a warm and welcoming place for my family and I can’t imagine the City without it!”
The community aspect of the garden has overflown into the community of Hyattsville. “One of the newest initiatives in the garden has been an outreach project with Hyattsville Aging in Place (HAP) to provide local seniors with fresh produce on a weekly basis. Gardeners donate excess produce —which as you can imagine this time of year involves a lot of tomatoes! — the food is then delivered by HAP to local seniors. It’s a wonderful program and a great example of a local community initiative,” Reams said.
Hyatt Park isn’t the only place with gardens in the city. One only needs to look so far as resident Joe Ludes’ yard, a not-so-hidden agricultural oasis a block from Route 1.
“I had been interested in gardening as a kid and have lived in extremely urban spaces and as an adult, I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore that interest,” he said. “Then I bought a piece of property in Hyattsville with some space, half an acre, and dove into it and went crazy,” he laughed. Currently, he is growing beans, blackberries, corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra, squash, elderberries, apples, and grapes. Ludes also maintains a hoop house he built last year and uses to extend the growing season.
As if tending to his own yard wasn’t enough, Ludes also works full-time as Mid-Atlantic Educator for the nonprofit Real School Gardens, which builds school gardens throughout the region and plans to break ground on three school gardens in Prince George’s County this year. He also gives workshops for area organizations such as the Neighborhood Farm Initiative.
More recently, Ludes has been talking with people about re- establishing the now defunct Hyattsville Urban Grower’s Group. He founded it about three and a half years ago with the idea that it would be a “support network for anyone that wanted to grow food in their yards…a way to share information, resources, tools, and to co-op labor,” he said.
“I think Hyattsville is a great spot. We are very close to the District, we are in more or less in an urban environment but are still able to find a bit of space and do quite a lot of [growing]. I have seen people grow most of their food supply on a tenth of an acre.”
Not all gardeners work solely in the soil. The Hyattsville Life and Time’s own Miss Floribunda, Victoria Boucher, has long been a fan of horticulture pursuits.
Today, Boucher currently serves as the President of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society (HHS). Previously, she “gardened on a volunteer basis at the Washington, DC Ronald McDonald House for twenty years,” she said, and also pruned roses as part of the Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild.
She began her column in May of 2008 as a way to help residents solve gardening problems and to “promote ecologically responsible gardening practices,” she said.
“Though the column was my idea, I wanted to be anonymous because my role was to collate the knowledge of other club members,” she said. But columnists are required to submit a photograph, so Boucher said she ended up wearing ‘a silly hat in Miss Floribunda’s photograph to disguise herself.
“I ran up to my attic and found a wilted hat and a lot of artificial flowers and ribbon in a trunk,” she said. “I whipped the hat together, borrowed my husband’s eyeglasses (at that time I didn’t need glasses) and smeared on some garish red lipstick that had been an unused gift.”
When the HHS was revived, she became an active member. “I do not consider myself nearly as good a gardener as most people in the group but I love rooting in the soil and writing about gardening,” she said.
The creation of the column was practically predicted by her father, Boucher said.
“…it was best summed up by my father one hot summer Alabama afternoon as we chatted while weeding the large bed of strawberries he had on his twelve acres of land. I was nattering on, and he turned to me and said, “You come from a long line of farmers, teachers and crackpots and I believe you combine all three.”