Community gardens get green thumbs up


Marlon Lord of Alexandria is chairman of the board at the Chinquapin Park community garden where he has been renting a plot for more than 12 years. He takes great pride in growing cucumbers for his spicy pickle relish known as chow chow, which follows a closely guarded family recipe. The crown jewel in his garden is asparagus, which he has perfected over the past four growing seasons.

Its quite a thrill to grow asparagus, Lord said. Obviously, other area residents agree.

Like Lord, most community gardeners want to grow their own flowers and vegetables. Springfield resident Philip Latasa has another mission in mind while he works the soil at the Franconia Park garden. Latasa is involved with Earth Sangha, an environmental group in the greater Washington area that concentrates on native plants that are getting overwhelmed by invasive species such as English ivy or hydrilla.

Now is the right time to start planting, said Latasa, standing among the gardens on a damp April afternoon. He added that the biggest problem to native plants is bulldozers, mostly.

Despite the inroads of those busy bulldozers, area gardeners are exercising their green thumbs at community gardens throughout Northern Virginia.

The Fairfax County Park Authority owns nine community gardens, while the City of Alexandria has two, subdivided into plots. In the City of Alexandria, the 15- by 20-foot plots have yearly rentals of $45 to residents and $75 to others. For Fairfax County, a 20- by 30- foot plot has a $45 flat fee, except at Eakin Park in Annandale where water is not provided. Both areas have waiting lists.

People really, really love it, said Magie Joyce, of the Fairfax County Park Authority Community Horticulture Program.

Gardeners must follow rules set by Fairfax County and the private garden board in Alexandria. The Chinquapin board requires that everything be organic, including pesticides.

This year, Fairfax County is opening a second garden at Grist Mill Park near Mount Vernon, consisting of 18 plots. The overall number of plots in the county remains about the same because some gardens have lost space due to nearby tree growth and shading, Joyce noted. Area Girl Scouts help maintain many county gardens as a way to earn a gardening badge.

John Walsh, the city horticulturist in Alexandria, said their program started about 25 years ago with a couple of dozen gardens, but most of them fell victim to development. In addition to the two city gardens, the National Park Service runs another at Jones Point.

Every August at Chinquapin, the gardeners bring in their best vegetables for judging and have a picnic with hot dishes primarily prepared out of the garden, Lord said. The mayor of Alexandria and several council members come out as well. Its more a social event, Walsh said.

Joyce does not know of any planned picnics in Fairfax County but added, We would love to get to that point.