If you’re new to gardening, you might still be getting to know the awesome community of gardeners beyond the confines of your own backyard beds. As you do, you’ll discover that we’re blessed with a vibrant community in D.C., and a growing one.
Once a month we’ll profile one of the leaders in this community. If you’re new to gardening, we hope this’ll help you get to know that larger landscape (gardening pun!) of gardeners and farmers around you. If you’re experienced and involved, we hope this’ll give you a unique inside look at the people making this community so vibrant.
This month, we’re profiling Lola Bloom, co-founder and co-director of City Blossoms, a 10 year old non-profit that works with schools, community groups and other organizations to create green spaces – whether it’s leading classes and workshops in and about gardens and green spaces, providing resources and information to start a new garden, or maintaining green spaces designed with community engagement and artistic expression in mind.
I sat down with Lola this afternoon, at Big Bear Café in Bloomingdale, to talk about City Blossoms, how she got her start, and where she thinks this whole thing is headed.
Lola was born and raised in D.C., and – like most of us – didn’t start out thinking she’d end up where she is now. She is first and foremost an artist. She’s studied it and taught it. She lives and breathes it. She’s drawn to what she describes as an inherent need in people to create, to leave their mark. And it’s from this perspective that Lola came to gardening. A green space – like the ones City Blossoms helps create – offers a way to do just that. And Lola isn’t just talking about creating the perfect vegetable – in fact, the vegetable is almost beside the point – it’s about creating, period: creating relationships, creating community, creating the infrastructure for a sustainable movement, creating art in, around and about the garden. And creating that art in your own community, art that is “democratized”, in other words accessible, not something you’ll need to trek down to the Smithsonian to see.
Lola’s co-founder and co-director Rebecca Lemos is also an artist. The seed that would grow into City Blossoms (sorry, had to do it J) started when Lola and Rebecca were tapped to work in the garden with the kids at their tutoring center in Columbia Heights. Neither was an expert gardener, but they learned quickly. And what they saw as they worked with these kids was just how much the experience of working in the garden changed them, changed how they saw the world and themselves, and changed their families and neighborhoods.
Lola says that to this day City Blossoms still spends more on art supplies than seeds. Their green spaces and programs continue to be about feeding that innate need to create, whether through planting or painting.
When we got to talking about the urban gardening scene in D.C., Lola highlighted what in her mind is the single biggest problem: turn-over. D.C. is a transient city, but when it comes to school gardens and urban farms, it’s more than that. It’s the fact that the field isn’t professionalized – what Lola described reminded me of how I’ve heard the early days of environmental activism described – people freelance, or work part-time, or volunteer… but full-time jobs with benefits are few and far between. And this tenuousness means it’s hard to build a sustainable community of people with the time to devote to building what can and should be built here, not to mention the fact that it becomes nearly impossible to engage the people who don’t have the resources to afford options like freelancing or working part-time. All of this undermines building a sustainable community.
Lola is really optimistic about the direction things are headed though. She used the Healthy Schools Act as an example: a clear indication of a shifting mindset and recognition of the value of this work to the city, in particular. And she talked about the growing network of organizations, collaborating in bigger and better ways – organizing banner events like Rooting D.C. for example – and subsequently attracting bigger funders.
But there’s more to do, Lola says. The city needs to continue investing in projects like school gardens. The Healthy Schools Act provides $200,000 a year towards school gardens, but at most schools that still means a dedicated teacher is going to run the garden curriculum out of his or her back pocket, rather than a full-time garden coordinator. And all of the school gardens are in elementary schools; why not expand to high schools, and fold in horticulture and green jobs training programs. And outside of the schools, the city itself will need to defend our existing green spaces against the dizzying speed of development. And local restaurants and bars can help to by truly supporting local food – whether that’s growing some of it out front, like Big Bear does, or sourcing it from the city’s own urban farms and gardens.
If you’re interested in getting more involved in working with City Blossoms – stop by their Girard Street or Marion Street green spaces to get plugged in. Lola promises that there’s a role for everyone – whether it’s weeding, watering, building, painting, learning a recipe, or just talking and getting to know people – and everyone is welcome. You can check City Blossoms’ Upcoming Events page for details on workdays and open hours. You can also send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about volunteering.
And really, Lola encourages you to show up at any of the city’s green spaces, farms or gardens. They’re beautiful spaces that don’t have a voice unless people show up. And showing up is the perfect way to learn, meet people and find the role that you can play.
And for the new gardeners out there, whether you’re working in your own garden or school or community garden, Lola’s advice is to let go of the idea that you need to be able to grow the perfect vegetable. It’s ok to kill things; Lola admits to having killed a few plants herself…
Is there someone you’d like to see us profile? Leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!