A Garden of One's Own

A Garden of One's Own

Ever since their inception, community gardens have been a hit in Fairfax County.

August 2, 2002

County residents will find community gardens at the following parks: Wakefield Park, Eakin Community Park, Broyhill Crest Park, Baron Cameron Park, George Mason Park, Lewinsville Park, Nottaway Park, Franconia Park, Grist Mill Park, Pine Ridge Park and Pine Crest Golf Course.

For information call (703) 324-8702.

Jim Wykle has seen many novice gardeners. Some will rent plots of land next to his at the Lewinsville Park in McLean community gardens and fail to keep them properly maintained.

"They don't realize how much work goes into it," he said.

Wykle has been renting 20x30-foot plots of gardening land from the Park Authority for the past 25 years. He has been working on his plots at Lewinsville for the last 15.

"I started this before I retired," said Wykle, a McLean Hamlet resident. "My family says I stay out here too much time."

Wykle's garden has a healthy crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, beans eggplant and squash.

The garden looks like a giant checkerboard with plots neatly delineated by low wire fences. Tomato vines, corn stalks and brightly colored flowers grow side by side on the squares.

THERE ARE about 750 such plots spread out in 12 parks across the county, said Susan McDonald, who manages the community gardens from Green Springs Park in Annandale. Gardeners pay an annual rent of $35 and may renew their plots every year. According to McDonald, the rents don't even cover the cost of the water the gardeners use.

The gardens have been very popular ever since they were created more than 20 years ago. On some parks, such as Pine Ridge (with 156 plots), waiting lists for a plot can exceed two years, said Frank Vajda, a Park Authority Board member from Mason District who maintains a plot at Pine Ridge.

Vajda said it was unlikely the Park Authority would designate more land for community gardens anytime soon.

"We've looked into it but land is at a premium," Vajda said.

He added that the Board had tried to put in more plots at a local park until it learned that the site had been a burying ground.

"We're hopeful with the bond issue then we have to follow the bond issue with a bigger one in 2004," he said. "That would give us the opportunity to buy some more land."

But the main problem, according to Wykle, is not availability of land but the way the county maintains the land. He said he has seen rats running through the gardens, not far from a jungle gym where children play.

"There's a problem with thievery [of produce]," he added. "It is getting bad. I give people things but I will not tolerate thieves."

Wykle said he doubted other gardeners were stealing produce. "It's primarily outsiders," he said.

To deal with the situation, Wykle has started planting potatoes around the perimeter of his lot. Even though he does not particularly like potatoes, he said, he has found that they are harder to steal and they make a good barrier to protect the eggplant and squash at the heart of his plot.

COMMUNITY GARDENS are usually thought of as primarily an urban phenomenon. Their success in Fairfax County may be an indication that the county is becoming increasingly an urban jurisdiction. Vajda said many of his fellow gardeners live in condos or apartments which don't come with front or back yards. Others are like Vajda, people whose yards are either too small or too shady to make gardening possible.

"The problem with gardening at your house is the yards have been grown over with trees," he said. "As far as good tomatoes and zucchinis and so on — you're better off at the plot."

Gardeners also benefit from the camaraderie at the plots, with longtime gardeners teaching new techniques to their less experienced colleagues, Vajda added.

"There's a fairly chummy group," he said. "We get together two or three times year and have a clean-up at the park."

Tomatoes are by far the most popular crop on the plots. Last year, Fairfax County gardeners grew an estimated seven tons of tomatoes in community gardens, said Liz Kirchner, a Fairfax agronomist who has studied the county's public gardens. They also raised between five and seven tons of peppers and eggplants.

Kirchner also said the gardens are very popular with recent immigrants to the country.

"I was really interested in the connection between growing food and keeping a connection to a distant home," she said.

For instance, she found that Vietnamese-American gardeners tend to favor plants like lemon grass or spinach while Korean-American gardeners grow a lot of red peppers or sesame.

"Asian techniques are a lot more intensive than European techniques," she said, with higher yields and greater demands on the land and in labor.