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The heat of a late July afternoon does not deter kids from Roland Park to Ferndale, Ednor Gardens to Gwynn Oak, from playing old-fashioned marble tag, drinking lemonade or racing across the manicured grounds of Cylburn Arboretum. Blistering temperatures also do not keep 200 gardeners from turning out to celebrate the fruits of four months of planting, weeding, watering and tending their City Farms plots and community gardens. Like an old-fashioned country fair, the annual City Farms supper features a cooking competition of creations prepared with at least one City Farms-grown ingredient, a supper of hamburgers, hot dogs and dishes made from the harvest, and prizes awarded for everything from most improved garden to best carrots and tomatoes.

Nearly 30 years ago, the City Farms program was created as a response to urban hunger and malnutrition. It originated in Clifton Park and has evolved to include seven parks that feature a variety of plots- some strictly organic, some farmed with chemicals, some organized in long rows, others more whimsical- by gardeners young, old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian and more. In partnership with the Baltimore Area Master Gardeners, City Farms provides each gardener access to fenced and locked plots, hoses, some tools, wood chips and leaf compost- everything needed, except seeds and muscle power, to transform the bare ground into a bountiful garden.

An English cottage garden

High on the Patterson Park hill, with a view clear to the harbor, an evening breeze drops the temperature 10 degrees from a steamy city day. Sounds of live, cool jazz waft up from the nearby pavilion to Cinder Hypki and Rick Wilson’s four City Farms plots. 

This evening the two are covered, face to feet, in mud. Torrential rains have made the soil ideal for weeding. “They come out like you’re pulling from melted butter,” says Wilson.

“I am a farmer,” explains Hypki, her hands permanently soil-stained.  “I grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. … I began planting trees when I was 6, but we didn’t have much time for gardening,” she says, slipping three fat ruby-red radishes from the soil.

Now this community artist/organizational consultant tends her shady rowhouse garden in Upper Fells Point and works with Wilson here on plots she first started tending seven years ago. When they took over the garden, Hypki, Wilson and their friends did what all good gardeners do:  they drew up a master plan. “It’s the first garden you see [when you enter from the park]. I wanted to do it up right,” says Wilson, a Butcher’s Hill resident who works for Amtrak in Washington, D.C., and at the Maryland Zoo.

First they created the hardscape: serpentine, brick-edged paths winding through the L-shaped plot to break up the rectangles. Next came perennials. “We don’t waste money on annuals,” says Wilson, who says they spend a grand total of about $60 per year and grow the few annuals- zinnias, cosmos and cleome- from seed. The rest comes from division or other gardeners. Or, says Hypki, “We go to Home Depot and Lowe’s and buy up all the 50-cent plants then nurse them along.”

Like a true English cottage garden, it now overflows with perennials: lamb’s ear, black-eyed Susans, chrysanthemums, Echinacea, statis, lilies and daisies. Vegetable beds are tucked artfully at the corners and filled with tomatoes, basil, radishes, spinach, arugula, peppers and mesclun greens. 

“What I love,” says Hypki, “is the opportunity to be in a space where every racial, socio-economic and ethnic group works together. … I see very few places like it in the city.”

As she says this, an Asian woman in a nearby plot carries cuttings to the compost pile. Two men stop outside the fence to admire the garden and Hypki starts speaking fluent Spanish to them, eventually placing the three radishes she pulled earlier into their hands.

Family farm

On a rare, cool summer evening, two small, muscular, blond boys emerge from rows of vegetation and run up the path to an extraordinarily neat and organized plot of vegetables and herbs in Druid Hill Park.  “Camomile!”  says the tallest, Alex, age 9, pointing to a mound of minuscule daisy-like blossoms. Then he quickly discloses his passions for camomile tea, zucchini pancakes and dinosaur kale frittatas all made from the crops he and his brother Nick, 7, along with their mother, Barbara Pralle, and sometimes their father, Elmer Eusman, grow on a small plot they tend year-round.

When the family first began tending the plot a year ago, layers of weeds blanketed it, plaguing their crops, along with thousands of ants. Now the family weeds in winter, and plants tansy and a colorful row of orange calendula that’s “edible,” explains Nick, that deter ants and cucumber beetles.

In summer, the family comes twice a week from their Roland Park home, which with five towering trees is too shady for vegetables.  “I wanted the kids to have an opportunity to learn from gardening,” says Pralle, a research analyst for a scientific publisher. “Flowers are not going to get boys interested.”

“But that’s a nice one,” says Nick, pointing to a neighbor’s orange daylily. His job is unearthing stones to build a garden path and harvesting snow peas, beans, cucumbers and zucchini. Alex helps with those tasks, too, while he tends his own crops of camomile and heirloom Ox Heart carrots.

After diligent winter weeding, the family has refined its growing efforts this season with “rotation and staggering,” says Alex. In spring they grew mesclun greens, dinosaur kale and snow peas, repeating the kale in fall and adding squash and Brussels sprouts. “They like Brussels sprouts in cheese soup,” says Pralle. 

The boys laugh, remembering last year’s endless zucchini that, if let to grow, “turned into baseball bats,” says Alex. Nick spreads his arms wide to show their extraordinary length. The whole family was thrilled to see that the tomatillos came back from last year’s seed. “Look!” shouts Nick, pointing to a yellow globe. “One’s almost ready!”

Farmer for life

On a humid Friday morning, five gardeners tend plots beside the maintenance building at Druid Hill Park. “Cucumber beetle!” screeches one boy to his brother. “Watch out for his legs!” Another woman clips colorful zinnias as a large man, John Polhemus, lumbers down the mulch path carrying an empty bushel basket.

Polhemus farmed 128 acres in northwest New Jersey for 37 years before retiring two years ago to Bolton Hill. “I had always wanted to live in a city, and I got lucky. I worried that I would be a cipher, but I can walk down the street and talk to more people in a morning than I did all day up there,” he says. He often runs into his neighbors while working his Baltimore “farmette”: three 10-foot-by-15-foot plots. 

At Druid Hill Park, Polhemus grows mostly vegetables with a border of gladiolas, zinnias and cosmos, all of which he starts from seed in a south window of his townhouse. “I still get my farm catalogs,” he says, explaining that the best time to start seeds is March- “otherwise they get tall and leggy.” The Garden State expert grows an assortment of tomatoes, peppers, squash, beets, Bibb lettuce, red and yellow Swiss chard, parsley and basil.

Each year, there’s a new thrill on Polhemus’ plots. This year it’s the red plastic he uses to cover the ground where his tomatoes grow. “The red hue is advantageous to the growth of tomatoes. It increases production by 20 percent,” he says, proving that once a farmer, always a farmer.

The numbers: 616, 10-foot-by-15-foot plots farmed by 294 city residents. Locations in seven city parks: Carroll, Clifton, DeWees/Woodbourne, Druid Hill, Fort Holabird, Leakin and Patterson. Cost: $20/year, plus a one-time key fee of $10. Info: Coleen McCarty, City Farms coordinator, 410-396-7839 or http://www.bcrp.info/city_farms.htm

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