UMD Assistant Professor Reinvigorates an Underused Community Garden in Her Own Neighborhood by Transforming it into a Community Farm and Event Space

Community member in the Columbia Heights Green

January 31, 2018 Samantha Watters

University of Maryland’s Dr. Katherine Tully, Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, moved to Washington, DC in 2014 and rented a house overlooking the Columbia Heights Green, a community garden. Now over three years later, she is the Community Coordinator and Farm Manager for the Green and has reimagined the space as a true community farm, where residents collectively grow crops and harvest for personal use and for local soup kitchens. Thanks to community engagement work by Dr. Tully and her student, Philip Evich, the space is also being used for community events, bolstering local art, activism, and recreation. Through their volunteer efforts, the Green has become a natural oasis in an urban environment where local adults and children alike can learn how to grow fresh vegetables and where their food comes from, while having a space solely for the community by the community.

At first, when Dr. Tully looked out over the Green, she never saw anyone in it and wasn’t totally sure what the space was for or how to get involved. One day, she was looking out her bedroom window, and she finally saw someone there. She ran outside, and it was Steve Coleman, now a personal friend and the Director of Washington Parks and People, the nonprofit that owns the Green. After a long, passionate conversation about the space, Coleman named Dr. Tully the Community Coordinator on the spot, with the goal of reinvigorating the space. “I was so intrigued by this abandoned garden basically in my backyard, and meeting Steve there was so fortunate,” said Dr. Tully. “He was ready to support all my ideas and work with me to revitalize the Green.”

The lot for the Green was purchased in 2010 for $1 after Washington Parks & People worked to remove the numerous liens on the property. Once a junk-yard and abandoned lot, the Green is now a model of urban community agriculture. “We were a traditional community garden when I first found the Green,” explained Dr. Tully. “We had 14 individual beds that community members could use to grow whatever they wanted, but that doesn’t really represent a community effort. Some people had beds they never used, while other people wanted beds, but there weren’t enough to go around. Often one bed had pests or got a disease, someone wouldn’t deal with it, so it became a problem for the whole garden.  The other issue with individual beds, is that it doesn’t foster interaction among the gardeners. By removing these beds and putting in 4 new community beds, we became a real community farm. Everyone contributes, learns, and harvests together. It has been much more rewarding.”

Philip Evich, senior in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape architecture, interned with Dr. Tully at the Green in the summer of 2017 and helped bring the space to the next level. “When I started my internship, I thought I would just be gardening and putting in physical work at the Green,” said Evich. “But when I got there, I saw the potential for so much more. Dr. Tully supported me instantly, and my goal became to get more people to the space. I wanted to be a conduit for the community to come together and make the space their own.”

Evich arranged community events, connecting local artists, musicians, poets, and activists to the Green. Thanks to his work, they developed an events request page online that is being used by the community. “There is a sign at the Green that says ‘This is a place for the community and by the community.’ And this was the first time as a student I had a chance to get people excited about a space as a forum and have a community space be actually for and by the community. It’s also amazing to see all the forms a farm can take, and to see diverse groups of people coming together and learning together. It has been truly a grassroots effort, and it takes a community effort to keep that alive,” says Evich.

Dr. Tully just recently purchased a home in the community, further cementing herself as a community leader. “I love my community, and I love the Green,” said Dr. Tully. “The first time you see a child who knows nothing about agriculture or food production pull a carrot out of the ground, the way their face lights up is amazing. As a community member, it has been so exciting to watch everyone come together to grow fresh produce. As a scientist, I love watching my neighbors track and weigh the produce to collect data on our yields. I can’t wait to see where the Green will go.”