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Baltimore’s Recreation and Parks Department Boosts Urban Farming With City Farms

Baltimore’s Recreation and Parks Department Boosts Urban Farming With City Farms

July 14, 2014 |

Clifton Farms, Baltimore's Oldest City farm. Photo courtesy of Harold McCray

Clifton Farms, Baltimore’s Oldest City farm. Photo courtesy of Harold McCray

Urban gardening is a long-time tradition in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, according to the new City Farms Coordinator Harold McCray.

“Its original purpose was in response to urban hunger and malnutrition—that was its root,” McCray says.

The idea to include community gardens within Baltimore’s parks developed later, according to McCray. Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer suggested a garden network, beginning as a horticulture division of Recreation and Parks which became City Farms. In 1978, the first City Farms garden, located in Clifton Park, took root.

“The City Farms program is pretty much, now, a collaboration of several entities that are interested in developing the neighborhoods in the city with the City Planning Commission fully involved,” McCray says.

Part of Mayor Schaefer’s plan in creating the community gardens was to elevate the community and give visibility to the notion that Baltimore is on the rise, recognizing its allegiance to its citizenry, according to McCray. And its citizens were pleased, he says.

“People were leaving the city because economic advantages were not here, but that exodus has been averted due to City Farms and like-minded programs,” says McCray.

How the program works

Overall, the gardens are rented space. Individuals as well as various groups such as churches and non-profit organizations have the responsibility to work their particular gardens. Some of the organizations and non-profits are geared toward providing food for the homeless, according to McCray.

“We have some gardeners who are pretty much under the umbrella of a church,” says McCray. “Its members develop a plot for the congregation, those needing food. For some, it’s the equivalent of tithing.”

How each garden is managed is handled on an individual basis, according to McCray.

“A number of the plots are are strictly organic—no chemicals whatsoever,” he says. “It’s a group decision; it varies garden to garden. Recently, we’ve had gardeners who use hoops; hoop gardening makes it possible to grow during the colder months.”

City Farms receives funding via many sources, says McCray.

“There is a special fund that is set aside by the City of Baltimore,” he says. “And there are various organizations that make contributions. Also, individual membership dues for a plot 10 by 15, goes into a fund that is used to replace tools.”

City Farms provides gardens with wood chips for walkways as well as mulch and compost, according to McCray. Though communal gardening supplies and tools are supplied by City Farms, McCray says that many prefer to outfit their gardens themselves.

“In Clifton Garden, the people bring their own tools because most of them are seasoned gardeners of 10 to 15 years,” he says. “But City Farms provides wheel barrows, water hoses, etcetera.”

Success and challenges work hand-in-hand

“Patterson Park has a waiting list of over 200 people,” says McCray. “It’s in an area of city revitalization.”

According to McCray, the newest City Farms addition is Upton Garden.

“We are still developing it; it needs a lot of nurturing,” he says. “I think it’s important to say that it’s not a traditional setting—it’s not actually in a park. It’s in the city neighborhood—a vacant lot that was used as a parking lot, but a gentleman in the neighborhood got a grant of seed money to start this garden. Its management has since been taken over by City Farms. We’ve provided them with flowering plants as well as vegetable plants, to stimulate the activity of gardening in this area. It’s wonderful to see how they support one another; we have an handicapped person who gardens in a raised bed and they have a volunteer to make sure that she has water jugs always filled with water so that she can water her garden.”

There are always issues to deal with, according to McCray.

“Upton is one of those areas of Baltimore that has some urban issues,” he says. “The City Farm program recognizes that. We’re doing what we can to elevate an awareness in the community—that through growth and participation in improving your health by gardening, the community can be elevated. By doing this, you are sending out a message to others that ‘this is my community, I want to grow my own food, and I will do whatever I need to do to make sure that this idea has propagated.’ The people of Upton deserve a pat on the back; it is not in a spacious park like where all the other gardens are located, with access to water and other amenities that are taken for granted. The Upton garden is spreading its wings, bringing together a diverse group of people. I’m very excited about it!”

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