January 30th, 2017

The Greener Garden

by Nate Charnas

Urban agriculture in Baltimore seems to be having a moment in the spotlight, but growing food in the city is nothing new for Lavette Blue. “I love farming,” says Lavette, who has almost 30 years of experience at the Greener Garden, the farm she and her husband, Warren, started near Northern Parkway. They were concerned with the amount of pesticides used to produce everything they ate, and “we wanted to have a healthier alternative for us and our children.” Initially, Lavette and Warren were only able to work at the Greener Garden part-time, and on just 1/5th of their current land, but they expanded the farm bit by bit every year until they achieved what they have today. “A lot of hard work went into this,” says Lavette; “just imagine a forest that had been unattended for years and years…we cut down so many trees.”

There have also been challenges beyond the already demanding task of running a farm. “It’s a constant struggle for a black farmer” Lavette explains, because people are “acclimated to the idea of a farmer being white, or that if you are black and growing produce in a city, you must be part of a community garden.” Lavette frequently hosts tours of the Greener Garden, partly to dispel these stereotypes, but also to increase her visitors’ exposure to farming and nature. This is especially important for kids and teenagers, who Lavette worries have become “blind to nature…even in the suburbs, we’ve become urbanized.” She remembers the last groups of students to visit arriving in nice clothes, not realizing that growing food would require them to work in the dirt and soil (“I don’t care if you have on your best $100 pair of tennis shoes”); the students were even surprised that “a tomato can be yellow? It can be green?”

photo of the Blues from Greener Garden

The produce that Lavette and Warren grow at the Greener Garden has mostly been for the local community, but they have recently started selling at Baltimore farmers markets as well (at the Park Heights Community Farmers Market since 2013, and at the Druid Hill Farmers Market since 2015). Still, there are always regulars who live nearby and come right to the farm to buy their produce, which includes all kinds of vegetables: tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggplant, squash, leeks, garlic, and all the brassicas (like kale and collards). Lavette and Warren also introduce new varieties and specialty products from year to year, such as Asian spinach; callaloo from the Caribbean; magda, a mild green, sweet Mediterranean squash (even though many customers have never heard of it, “the people that I talk into buying it love it”); and watered greens, a kind of West African spinach that is a favorite of Lavette and her customers (unfortunately, because of the Ebola epidemic, Lavette hasn’t been able to get the seeds for the past few years). There is also room for fruit at the Greener Garden – the farm has two apple trees, a peach tree, and blueberry bushes – as well as plenty of herbs. Someday, Warren would even like to raise chickens.

About the Author Nate Charnas

Nate Charnas is an AmeriCorps VISTA at MDFMA focusing on increasing benefits access for farmers market customers. He is originally from San Francisco and hopes the good people of Baltimore will accept all of his Giants clothing as a sign of solidarity with the Orioles.