Food, Flowers and Friendships


By Julia Thayne and Coy McKinney

The SW Community Garden sits in the southwest quadrant of Washington, DC, in a neighbourhood known as Southwest Waterfront. Southwest Waterfront is a primarily residential area, bounded to the north by federal government offices and to the south by the Anacostia River, once considered the most polluted river in the whole country. While the city has experienced massive gentrification during the past 20 years, Southwest Waterfront is one of the few neighbourhoods that not only has remained surprisingly mixed in both racial and socioeconomic terms, but also continues to feel like a community. A vibrant cultural and commercial scene, including an arts centre, several parks, and the city’s only fish market, contributes to the convivial atmosphere, with newcomers to the neighborhood often greeted with warm “hellos.”

The SW Community Garden both feeds from and perpetuates this strong community feeling. It opened on July 31, 2013 – the culmination of a year-long effort by a group of green-thumbed residents that had a common idea, and worked with the local government and local businesses to bring it to fruition. The garden consists of 34 raised-beds: 2 are wheelchair accessible, 4 are specifically reserved for residents of the 4 surrounding public housing complexes (council estates), 10 can be used by any member of the community, and the rest are individual plots.

2Digging in the Dirt

When talk first began about developing a local garden, a neighborhood group met monthly to discuss location, lay-out, and purpose. Two goals were established: making the garden a true community garden, and not just a garden in the community; and making the garden an inviting space to the public housing residents nearby.

To meet the first goal, the group decided to set aside one section of the garden as a communal space. It would have regular work days where anyone could volunteer, and participants would learn about gardening, maintain the garden, and come up with other activities to integrate the garden into the community.

The idea for a communal section grew out of a frustration in the way traditional community gardens operate. Generally, community gardens have a set number of plots that are assigned to individuals for a fixed number of years. Although this provides a great opportunity for the plot holders, it does very little for those outside the fortunate few. With the importance of improving access to local, organic food becoming an essential component of advancing social health, the communal garden represented one step towards building an inclusive space.

3Food Demo

To meet the second goal, the group discussed the diversity of the neighborhood, future development, and the social issues entangled with gentrification. It was important to make sure the gardening group understood the social context in which the garden existed, and why it was critical to keep that in consideration. Groups of gardeners not only canvassed the area to talk with neighbours, longstanding community groups, and community centres, but also attended neighbourhood meetings, making an effort to integrate themselves into already existing groups.

4Free Food

The Garden is 1 year old, and there is already much to celebrate. There have been events, plantings, harvesting, and distributions of more than 30 pounds of free produce. During community gardening hours, kids from the neighbourhood are always around to help; curious neighbours stop in to grab kale, snap peas, and whatever else has been harvested that day.

So far, I think our motto suits us well: Food, flowers, and friendships.

This article originally appeared on Urban Vignettes