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As the weather gets warmer, people across the region are getting their hands dirty in their gardens. But not everyone has a green thumb, or, for that matter, much space to garden. We check in with gardeners and urban farmers about how to keep up with their plants and flowers as the earth creeps towards summer. Plus, we explore the push to plant native species to attract pollinators.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
- Jake Dacks Garden Manager, Washington Youth Garden
- Kate Lee Farm Director, D.C. Greens
- Violet King Farm Manager, Farm Manager of the Farm at Kelly Miller
Deep In The Dirt: Spring Gardening Tips
KOJO NNAMDIAs we said before, spring has sprung. And across the region, people are getting their hands dirty in their gardens, but not everyone has a green thumb, or, for that matter, much space to garden. Today, we're talking with gardeners and urban farmers in the region about how to keep up with their plants and flowers as the weather warms up. Joining us in studio is Jake Dacks. He's the garden manager of Washington Youth Garden. Jake Dacks, thank you for joining us.
JAKE DACKSIt's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIKate Lee is the farm director at D.C. Greens. Kate, good to see you.
KATE LEEIt's an honor. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd Violet King is farm manager of the Farm at Kelly Miller. Violet King, thank you for joining us.
VIOLET KINGThank you.
NNAMDIYou are farm manager at the Farm at Kelly Miller right behind D.C.'s Kelly Miller Middle School. Tell us about that project from the plot of land you farm on.
KINGOh, sure. So, I work for an organization called Dreaming Out Loud. And so we started the Farm at Kelly Miller last year, so this is our second season. And we're about on an acre of land there, and farm and garden that space with a few partner organizations, City Blossoms and Beet Street. And so it's a multigenerational space. I manage the vegetable production there, which is used for educational purposes and for a CSA Market. And then City Blossoms has a youth garden for kids in the area, and Beet Street has senior beds for seniors.
NNAMDIIs there a relationship between the Farm at Kelly Miller and Kelly Miller Middle School which is a part of DC public schools?
KINGYes, there is. So, one of my coworkers, Cat, they manage a school garden at the school. And so they do different programming with the youth there. And one of their programs is called Grub Club. And then those students are able to come up to the farm, as well.
NNAMDII think we may talk about Grub Club a little more and later in the broadcast. Jake Dacks, you also manage an educational garden, one of the oldest in the district. What is Washington Youth Garden?
DACKSSo, Washington Youth Garden, we run a few different programs, mostly based out of our demonstration garden at the National Arboretum. So, Washington Youth Garden's a project of Friends of the National Arboretum. And we host about 4,000 students every year at our demonstration site there. We grow a lot of food, we have a big butterfly pollinator garden, a little natural play area and a little nature trail there. And then we also have programs in a handful of schools in the city in Northeast and Southeast DC, where we have staff in the schools that help connect the students with nutrition lessons, and also with gardens that we help implement and develop at their schools.
NNAMDIKate Lee, what kind of gardening do you do with D.C. Greens?
LEEFor the past eight years, D.C. Greens has had an almost one-acre size plot located at New Jersey and K Street Northwest. It's a demonstration urban farm, educational space, as well as production space. So, our food has been distributed through a variety of programs, including produce memberships to the Walker Jones Cafeteria next door. And then some specialty crops, we sell to restaurants.
LEEActually, we're relocating this year, because that site in Noma is being developed. So, while we aren't cultivating any crops this year, we hope to be again by next year, at our new location.
NNAMDIWhere are you relocating to?
LEEWe are working with the DC Department of Parks and Rec on a parcel of land in Oxen Run Park, D.C.'s largest city park.
NNAMDIJake Dacks, some people might really want a garden, but might not have a yard in which to do it. Do you have tips for people like, oh, apartment dwellers who don't have a whole lot of space to work with?
DACKSI'm sure we all do. (laugh) But, yeah, there's a lot of things you can grow in containers. I think if you don't have any access to space outside and you have a kitchen with a windowsill or even a room with a windowsill, you can grow herbs inside of there. And herbs are really great to have handy in the kitchen, anyway, because, you know, if you wanna just grab a little sprig of fresh oregano or some chives or some basil, it's nice to have that stuff on hand, regardless. And those things are easy to grow inside with a pretty low amount of direct sunlight. But then if you do have access to some outside space, I think growing in pots -- and there's a trend towards vertical gardening, which opens up a lot of possibilities. So...
NNAMDIIt may not be the easiest thing in the world to do -- vertical gardening, that is.
DACKSThere are versions of vertical gardening that are very difficult, or that are more difficult. But there are really, uh, I mean, one potential form of vertical gardening is having a pot and growing beans in it to grow vertically up the side of your apartment, right. Or sticking potatoes in the ground, and then throwing straw on top of them every couple of weeks until you have a five-foot-tall basket of potatoes. So, there's really not a whole lot to -- the barrier for entry is pretty low in terms of, like, the knowledge that you need in order to grow food. So, it can be difficult, but it also can be relatively easy.
NNAMDIAny other tips for people operating in small spaces, Violet King?
KINGI would say tomatoes are another good thing that you can grown. Like, if you have a balcony, like he mentioned, herbs, I like to grow, lemongrass in a pot. You can just clip it and make tea and different things with it. So, I think herbs are definitely a go-to. And then maybe, like, little boxes of flowers, as well.
LEEI would get some great, uh, seed catalogs. Johnny Seeds is one that comes to mind, and really keep an eye out for varieties of vegetables that grow in smaller shapes and sizes. So, I'm thinking like Persian cucumbers, maybe, instead of market cucumbers, or Mexican sour gherkin which is also like a miniature cucumber that you might get more result out of, because you have a limited space. Smaller space, smaller vegetable.
DACKSFor all of you here, taking care of and planting for gardens is a year-round process, but many people, though, don't really start thinking about gardening until it gets sunny and warm out. For people who have not started the garden yet and are hearing this show and would like to do it, is it too late? And if not, how do you suggest they get started, Kate?
LEEIt's definitely not too late. It's never too late to start a garden, but what I would say now that we have just passed Mother's Day, is that we're already into thinking about warm weather crops and summer crops. So, the season for lettuce and spinach and greens is a little bit behind us, and right now, you want to, you know, turn your soil pots, add some good compost, and then start thinking about squashes and cucumbers and peppers and tomatoes.
NNAMDIViolet, it's been a cold week, but that doesn't mean that we aren't still right in the middle of spring. What are you growing right now, and how has your season been going so far?
KINGSo, it's been going good so far. Right now, I have sugar snap peas, collards, kale, lettuce and strawberries growing. So, I just started harvesting strawberries this week which is exciting. And then I have herbs, and I'll be putting in, like Kate mentioned, be putting in my warmer crops in the next few weeks.
NNAMDIThat's the problem of doing this show during the lunch hour. (laugh) Just hearing her describe what she's growing right now is making me hungry, even as we speak. How has your season been going so far? What have you been doing lately at Washington Youth Garden?
DACKSIt's been going really well, also. We've had a real spring this year, which I don't think has been the case for the last couple years. It seems like we've gone straight from winter to summer. So, all the things that Violet just mentioned in our garden are also very happy. We also did a big harvest of turnips yesterday, and all of our produce that we harvested yesterday is actually on its way to one of our school garden markets right now. So, when the kids get out of school and their families come to pick them up, they'll be able to pick up some fresh, very local organic produce, as well.
NNAMDIVia emails: how can people get involved with Dreaming Out Loud, D.C. Greens and Washington Youth Garden?
LEEWe have many ways to get involved. One of our main ways this year is through the Farmers Market Brigade, which is a program that helps support our administration of the DC Produce Plus program. We aren't currently having open hours at the farm this year, due to our site change, but we hope to have those again next year, at our new location. And you can visit our website for more information.
DACKSYeah, I think the easiest way to get plugged in at Washington Youth Garden and a good way to, like, get your hands dirty, if you're still trying to learn this stuff for the first time, is to come volunteer at our garden. So, we have open volunteer hours on Tuesday mornings and Saturday mornings from 9:00 'til noon. You can find information about signing up for an orientation on our website, which is WashingtonYouthGarden.org.
NNAMDIHow can people get involved, if they'd like to, with the Farm at Kelly Miller?
KINGSo, we actually have open volunteer hours today from 3:30 to 6:30, and they're every Wednesday. So, people can come out and volunteer and bring some food home. And then, starting at the end of the month, we will have a CSA and market every Wednesday during those same hours at the Kelly Miller Middle School.
NNAMDIWhat's a CSA?
KINGIt stands for community supported agriculture, and so it's a way for folks to get a share of produce from the farm every week. And we'll be doing, I think, four six-week sessions at three sites in Ward 7 and Ward 8. So, Kelly Miller will be one of the sites. And so if people want to stay abreast of the things that we're doing, we're really active on social media, on our Instagram, DOLDC, or you can check out our website.
NNAMDIHere now is Peggy in Greenbelt, Maryland. Peggy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PEGGYOh, hello, and happy anniversary, Kojo. I tell you, I've been listening the whole time.
NNAMDIThank you, Peggy. Must be tired of it, by now, but go ahead. (laugh)
PEGGYNope. So, I just wanted to say that I am doing my first year as a member of a community garden, where I've got my own little plot. And I really love it, and there is rent for my community garden. It's amazingly cheap, and I'm so happy to be part of it, and I'm learning from the other gardeners how to do it, because I'm a city person. Yes, I'm in Greenbelt now, but I didn't know. So, it's really a wonderful alternative, I think, for city people.
NNAMDIYou mentioned the two magic words: amazingly cheap. That's what people should need to know. It doesn't take a whole lot of money to go ahead and do this. So, Peggy, thank you very much for your call. Kate, what do you recommend people do in their garden this time of year?
LEEThis time of year, it transitions away from a lot of planting to a lot of weeding and a lot of pest identification. Mulching is also something that's really important to keep in mind, as we head into the high heat of the summer months. I like to put woodchips down in my walkways so that I don't, you know, destroy the grass or create muddy areas. But I also like to use straw mulch around my plants. That helps with weed suppression and moisture retention in the soil over the summertime.
DACKSYeah. So, if you've gotten your summer crops in the ground already, your tomatoes and say your peas and your beans are starting to climb, you're going to want to start to think about trellising those things and pruning back some of the tomato plants. And our tomatoes are still pretty small, and probably most people's are, too. And so we're actually plucking off the tomato flowers still to give the plant a chance to get really established before they start producing fruit.
KINGI'll just echo what they said. (laugh)
NNAMDIHere, then, is Anita in Bethesda, Maryland. Anita, your turn.
ANITAYes, hi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to share that I've lived in Carderock in Bethesda for about 14 years, and it's a very shady neighborhood, in that we have so many trees. And so I started gardening in our cul-de-sac, which is the only place that gets sun. And I started with a little piece of the pie, and now we're, like, taking use of half of the...
NNAMDIAnita, are you there?
ANITA...so much. Yes.
NNAMDIOh, go ahead.
ANITAYes. And it produces a lot of tomatoes, basil, green peas. I even have, now, asparagus. So, I recommend for people that have a cul-de-sac to use the circle. It's a great place for gardening.
DACKSOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. Kate, last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released data showing the last 12 months have been the wettest on record for the United States, and this region is no exception. How are you all doing with all of this rain? Is it affecting the crops?
LEEThis year hasn't been as bad as last year. Last year, the weather, the rainy conditions were debilitating for a number of farms in the area. One of the big issues -- not only with waterlogged soil, that isn't great for roots -- is the amount of, like, fungal seeds that you can get on your plants. So, this year hasn't been as bad as it was last year.
NNAMDIJake, this past weekend, and the start of this week was very rainy, but come summer, that might not be the case. Are there general rules of thumb around watering, and are there plants that thrive better without too much water?
DACKSYeah, that's true. So, yeah, we kind of had too much water this week, but we'll be really excited for it, you know, once maybe July comes around. But, really, plants want sort of steady water. So, Kate mentions putting mulch around plants, and that'll serve a good dual purpose of both keeping the soil moist, and also when we do get a lot of rain, it prevents the soil from splashing up onto plants to spread bacterial and fungal diseases. But, yeah, plants -- especially like fruit, vegetable plants -- they prefer about an inch of water per week. And they like a deeper watering, rather than like a bunch of shallow waterings.
DACKSAnd then, yeah, there are some plants that don't actually want a whole lot of water. Like, all of our lavender plants die every time it seems to rain, (laugh) so they really want to have their feet dry, as people say.
NNAMDIViolet King, with all this rain, there's been a lot of weeds popping up, but it can be a major chore getting out to weed when the weather isn't exactly pleasant. Do you have any tips for dealing with weeds this time of the year?
KINGSo, actually that's what I did yesterday. It didn't rain, but it was still -- the ground was kind of wet, and so it was easier for me to pull the weeds out. So, I was able to weed a bunch of my lettuce beds yesterday. So, I think of weeding as kind of therapeutic. I know that some people hate it, but I think it's a way that you can kind of, like, maybe zone out a little bit, or tune in a little bit more, and just connect with the soil and with your plants and with your surroundings. And if you're with other people, it's a great time to get to know those people while you're doing this chore together. So I think of trying to look at weeding as not like this terrible thing that you have to do, but something that you can enjoy.
NNAMDIWhen people have looked at my past attempts at gardening, I tell them I grow weeds. (laugh) We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking about what you can do in your garden at this time of year, and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you have any tips for gardening on a budget? Give us a call: 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking spring and summer gardening with Jake Dacks, garden manager of Washington Youth Garden. Violet King is farm manager at the Farm at Kelly Miller, and Kate Lee is farm director at D.C. Greens. We got an email from Sarah, who writes: I successfully grew lovely tomatoes on my apartment balcony, but squirrels at most of them, so I did not plant anything edible again. When gardening on ground level in community gardens, how do the guests prevent critters from taking most of the produce, Violet King?
KINGSo, I'll say, last year, I had tomatoes and I had a problem with birds trying to eat them. And so I put this, like, netting around them, and that really prevented them from getting in there and trying to eat it. Sometimes they would, like, get caught in there, so I would have to check. But I found that that really helped with keeping pests away from my tomatoes.
NNAMDIAnd, similar question, Bill emails in: and we've tried to raise peas, tomatoes, figs and berries in our garden in Northwest, but find ourselves simply feeding rabbits, deer, chipmunks, squirrels and other visitors. Are there things that really deter critters from feasting in gardens, Kate?
LEENo, (laugh) is the honest answer. There are a variety of techniques. As Violet said, netting either around the individual plant, or, you know, building a netted structure over the top of an entire garden bed. There are some row fabrics, too, that are often used for season extension. But if you purchase a very thin one, they're used for pest deterrent, while allowing some light and rain to still get to your plants.
NNAMDIOn now to Rebecca in Silver Spring, Maryland. Rebecca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAHi. Thanks for having me on. I've been hearing a lot about really trying to get some food out of your soil. And I'm driving around my neighborhood, and I see all these clean-cut, grassy lawns. And I'd like to start my own garden, but rather have it be landscaped using native plants and really give back to the Earth and put in a habitat that can really help the environment and the wildlife around my neighborhood. And I was wondering what tips you might have to start a native garden like that.
NNAMDIIndeed, we spoke earlier this week about the impact climate change is having on species in this region. And we also talked about the importance of planting native species. Kate, what role do native species play in the health of the ecosystem here, and what would you recommend for Rebecca?
LEENative plants are so important for the ecosystem, especially around habitat creation for a lot of birds and pollinating insects. They also are much more low maintenance when you're trying to grow a plant that's designed to grow in this area and sort of preprogrammed for that. They suffer less disease and predation. I actually had pulled up, before I came, this resource that I love. It's the Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
LEEThere's a Chesapeake Bay watershed version, and it's full of pictures, which I love. And then it's like all sorts of charts about what kinds of butterflies or ladybugs or deer do these plants attract. And it's a fabulous resource.
NNAMDIJake, what are some plants that are native to this region that you'd recommend people plant in their gardens?
DACKSWell, especially if you're trying to attract pollinators, there are a bunch of them. Goldenrod, there are a few different kinds of goldenrod that are really attractive for pollinators, and they're native to this area. Bee balm, which is also called monarda -- or I think it's wild bergamot, too, is another really -- has a nice smell to it, and it's very attractive to insects. There are some ones that fix nitrogen to the soil. Baptisia is one of those, and has very pretty flowers on it. Milkweed, Echinacea, I think, is another native. I'm looking around at Kate and Violet. (laugh)
DACKSYeah, there are a bunch -- that resource that Kate just shared has probably all those ones that I just listed, and dozens more. Another one I really like is mountain mint that I think is native, and has a really beautiful smell and is very attractive to plants and -- or, sorry, to pollinators and really doesn't take a lot of maintenance.
NNAMDIHere's Celeste in Washington, D.C. Celeste, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CELESTEHi, Kojo. Happy anniversary.
CELESTEYou're welcome. I'm really enjoying this show. I'm relatively new to the area, and so I joined a community garden with a friend last year, and that was really great. And I loved it, but I didn't do it this year just because it was a lot of work, and we really started to struggle with the weeds kind of starting midsummer and onward. But I've appreciated some of the tips that you've shared about weeding. But what I did this year that it might be considered a bold move, but kind of in the un-landscaped multi areas outside my apartment, I threw in a tomato plant and some peppers. And that's just been like a lot easier and kind of made it more attainable. So, I was just sharing that. (laugh)
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that. Anyone care to comment? Kate?
LEEOne thing to keep in mind is that a weed isn't necessarily a bad plant. It's all more about the location of a plant being in a place you don't want it. And many weeds that we think are annoying in the garden are edible. And so being able to identify those plants is really important. There's a wonderful organization, Little Red Bird Botanicals, that has, like, guided walking tours that can help you identify edible plants that just thrive in window boxes or tree boxes, and probably your garden bed, as well.
NNAMDIHere is Michael in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Michael, your turn.
MICHAELHello. I had an experience a couple years ago in trying to grow tomatoes. And my experience was you will not get any unless you pollinate with the, well, I guess that means bees and butterflies. How can you attract those kinds of pollinators, like, in an environment basically of a large cement patio, without much else to really attract them?
NNAMDIWho wants to go first? Violet?
KINGI would say you could plant things like marigolds, um, zinnias, just kind of, like, bright flowers that you could plant in a pot that would attract some of those things. Some of the plants that Jake mentioned that are native plants, you can find them at plant stores, and you can also have those potted on your garden. I found that, actually, I learned this from Kate, that bees really love mountain mint. So, just having those things around in that area could help you attract those beneficial pollinators.
NNAMDIGot an email from Donna: please tell me how and when to harvest garlic. I planted some last fall, and it now looks like spring onions. Kate.
LEEGarlic and onions are in the same plant family. Typically, it's one of the plants that take the longest to grow, and that is often a surprise for many people. In our region, we plant garlic in October, and then we don't harvest it until around June. Coming in the next few weeks, we'll start to see the flower sprout up in a garlic plant, and that's called the garlic scape. You would want to break that off. It's also edible and delicious, desired by chefs and home cooks. And then you give it about another two weeks. You want to wait until the leaves of your garlic plant are about halfway brown, almost looking like their dying, and then you'll harvest it. And then you'll cure it. You'll want to let it sit out and dry for about two weeks. So, garlic is quite an investment.
NNAMDIYou brought a member of that family with you today.
LEEI did. I brought some scallions from our garden for you.
NNAMDIExactly right. Thank you very much. I will certainly enjoy them. Jake, somebody talked earlier about something that's remarkably cheap. Do you have tips for people who want to garden sustainably and organically without breaking the bank?
DACKSYeah well, I think if you want to eat sustainably and organically without breaking the bank, gardening is a good way to start that. (laugh) So, if you think about the cost of a packet of seeds versus the cost of 60 tomato plants -- which can give you probably, I don't know, five pounds each of tomatoes -- that's a good just sort of framework for looking at how much it costs to grow food in the first place. But, yeah, seeds are incredibly cheap. If you can -- it's not impossible -- it's a little tough, but it's not impossible to start them inside without any additional lighting.
DACKSAnd then there are resources around town where there are all kinds of seed swaps and plant swaps. I know one of our partner organizations, City Blossoms, has a group called Mighty Greens. It's a group of high school entrepreneurs that sell really cheap seedlings. I think they're probably still selling them right now. That's a great place to get some seedlings. So, yeah, with a lot of stuff, you can just stick the seeds straight in the ground, and, you know, you can buy 200 turnip seeds for $1.29, probably, and get 200 turnips. And I don't think there's a cheaper way to get produce.
NNAMDIHere is Eva in Woodbridge. Eva, your turn.
EVAYes, I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to eradicate bamboo grass, stiltgrass. I've been trying to do this for two years by pulling it up, and it's not going away.
KINGSo, I have a friend who has a farm, and they just put down silage tarp, and they said that killed all of the weeds that were there that they had been struggling with in the previous season. So, I've never used it personally, and maybe you all know, but I think maybe that could be a way. It blocks out the light, and then the grass could just decompose there in the soil.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, and good luck to you, Eva. Jake, you have what you call a butterfly garden. What is that, and why would people want to attract butterflies to their gardens?
DACKSWell, this relates to a number of the questions I've already gotten from some of the callers about attracting pollinators. So, well, there's utilitarian use for a butterfly garden for humans, so that they can pollinate the flowers, which in turn produce all the fruit that we eat, which aren't just the fruit that we see growing on trees, but tomatoes and peppers and eggplants and squash are all fruit that need to be pollinated by insects. But our butterfly garden is also largely just to attract butterflies who have increasingly rare habitat, because they deserve to just have space where they can migrate and find the right nectar sources and host sources to lay their eggs.
DACKSAnd also, since we are a youth-oriented garden, kids love walking through a butterfly garden and seeing all the different kinds of butterflies and getting a better sense of what all the different actors are that go into growing food.
NNAMDIVanessa emails: this year, I've planted okra, tomatoes, green beans and peppers all from seeds. I've always gotten great success with okra and green beans. Do you recommend starting with seeds or plants? I always start with seeds, and it has worked for me. Violet King?
KINGSo, for the crops that she mentioned, I would say definitely seeds. I'd definitely start okra and beans and squash from seeds. And then I normally get tomato transplants.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Violet King is farm manager of the Farm at Kelly Miller. Violet, thank you so much for joining us.
KINGThank you for having me.
NNAMDIKate Lee is farm director at D.C. Greens. Kate, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Jake Dacks is garden manager at Washington Youth Garden. Jake, thank you for joining us.
DACKSThanks a lot.
NNAMDIThat's it for today's show. Our show on urban gardening was produced by Mark Gunnery and our conversation about the latest at the Venezuelan Embassy was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, is DC funny? We'll hear from local comedians about the standup scene in this region. That's tomorrow at noon. Before we go, I'd like to mention, however, the passing of Alice Rivlin, a budget policy guru.
NNAMDIShe not only held high positions as founder and director of the Congressional Budget Office and as the first female director of the Office of Management and Budget, she also had a special role here in the District, where she headed the District's Financial Control Board, helped pull the city out of insolvency and onto a path of financial stability, and accepted just about every local post from local organizations that she was offered over the years. And you could run into Alice Rivlin on the street -- or as I did, often in Rock Creek Park -- and she was always ready to have a conversation about the city. She died yesterday at the age of 88. She will be missed. That's all for today. Thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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