Fall is a great time to check out a tremendous vegetable garden right in our Capitol Hill backyard. At the corner of Jefferson Drive and 12th Street, SW not far from the Washington monument sits a beautiful and bountiful vegetable garden organized and operated by the US Department of Agriculture.
The garden showcases food grown in raised beds, containers, and small plots along with flowers used to draw pollinators to the garden. The effect is stunning and the fall harvest plentiful.
Promoting the Urban Garden
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) employs 100,000 people in 4,500 locations. There are 29 agencies that include the Forest Service, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Affairs, Rural Development and the Agriculture Research Service headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland. Many of us are familiar with the US National Arboretum that is also part of the USDA.
From food stamps to food nutrition pyramids, the USDA plays an important part of our everyday lives. It is an agency that has traditionally been thought of as taking care of rural America.
But, as demographics change, more and more Americans are living in cities and non-rural locations. In 2022, USDA is investing more agency resources in urban gardens.
Currently, there are 17 urban hubs or people’s gardens that are part of USDA’s urban network. The People’s Gardens vary in size and type, depending on a community’s needs. To qualify for the program, a garden must be located on federally owned or leased property, at schools, faith centers or other places within the community.
They cannot be located at private residences.
In each hub, there is an emphasis on sustainable gardening practices and the importance of local, diverse sources of healthy food. As Jorge Penso, head gardener and Natural Resources Specialist / Soil Conservationist at the USDA headquarters garden on the Mall, says, “Food security is becoming a very serious concern for many, and I am very happy to be at the beginning of this national movement to educate and bring food production to urban areas.”
The People’s Gardens are providing food for cities with food deserts, educating gardeners on sustainable practices like integrated pest management, use of native plants, and increasing wildlife habitats and the number of pollinators in an area.
From Texas to the Mall
Jorge Penso arrived at the USDA headquarters’ People’s Garden this past April from Lubbock, Texas. Originally from Venezuela, Jorge says while he misses Texas and family, he really is enjoying being in a city. While the garden existed in different iterations over the past years, it is Jorge and the Natural Resources Conservation Service staff and volunteers, who have turned the 12th Street corner into a farmer’s paradise.
Some may be familiar with the USDA’s Farmer’s Market located adjacent to the garden. It operates on Fridays from 9 to 2 pm from May until the end of October. Jorge says that different vegetables, those in season, are highlighted each week, and the People’s Garden provides demonstrations about the plants and how to prepare the vegetable or fruit. “We get a lot of visitors on Fridays,” he says.
“We are a relatively small food producer compared to other gardens in DC. We produce about 400 pounds of produce a year,” notes Jorge. “I was pleasantly surprised to learn about DC’s food efforts to grow and distribute fresh produce to those in need. The work of the DC Food Policy Council is really exciting.” The People’s Garden sends their tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and other vegetables to Central Kitchen.
As a soil conservation expert, Jorge says using a good mixture of fertilizer, compost and soil is the first step in starting your own vegetable garden. Like a good foundation for a house, soil is your garden’s foundation. The USDA has access to greenhouses in Beltsville, so many of his People’s Garden plants come from starter plants grown there. “We also use seeds and I have seen that some plants, especially the herbs, have taken off,” says Jorge.
The star in the 2022 garden is a zucchini plant that grew out of the bed and into the path between containers. It has grown and grown, until now it has practically taken over the pathway. As fall arrives, it is putting on flowers, and hopefully a ton of zucchinis. The garden experiments with planting different combinations of plants and shares those experiments on its website, or in small videos produced for social media. https://www.usda.gov/peoples-garden
More than Vegetables
The garden also has an abundant number of flowers and plants that provide a colorful border to the raised vegetable beds. The sunflowers sway along the 12th street sidewalk. They are about at their end, and Jorge is collecting the seeds (those not eaten by birds and squirrels.) The sunflower is a special variety known as Tceqa’ Qu’ Si in Hopi. The Hopi Black Dye Sunflower has been used by the tribe for centuries and produces a deep maroon color used in basketry and wool works. Jorge is not sure how many seeds he will end up with, but is hoping for enough to make the dye. The People’s Garden is all about experimenting and learning.
Other summer flowers are planted as pollinators to help in vegetable production.
Of course, many native plants, such as milkweed, are used, and soon the milkweed pods will be bursting open sending their white seeds into the wind. Milkweed is a food source and a host plant for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs. The toxic chemicals in the sap of the milkweed protect the butterflies from predators. In the People’s Garden, the milkweed shared its raised bed with peanut plants. Both seemed to be thriving, and Jorge reports that there were a few monarch butterflies earlier in the season.
The garden is well marked for visitors to identify the plants, and there are a number of terrific signs providing more information on how to start your own garden.
“The garden is always looking for volunteers to come help and learn,” says Jorge, “and no experience is needed.” USDA is really invested in teaching the next generation of gardeners, and through their videos, websites, and demonstrations, there are many ways to get started. If you are interested in volunteering, contact Jorge directly at Jorge.penso@USDA.gov
The People’s Garden is truly a national treasure, and with Jorge’s enthusiasm and skills it has gone from a few plants to a thriving urban garden.