For several years, the spacious, acre-sized garden I’ve walked past in our neighborhood has called to me. You can see the community garden from the woodsy park next to it, and from the wide lanes of Connecticut Avenue. Walking by, I’ve eyeballed a few people at a time inside the fence, quietly focused as they fiddle with watering cans and digging tools. Late last fall, the space felt bigger, crawling with overgrown vines, reddening tomatoes, gourds, and sunflower stalks climbing up to 12 feet high. Finally I was curious enough to start asking questions.
Turns out, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the community garden at Cleveland Park. It started as a Victory Garden in another time of unpredictable supply chains when lethal threats from America’s enemies prompted people to grow vegetables for self-sufficiency.
It’s tempting to view World War II as a time of unified purpose, but the city’s wartime council was acting fractious one night in January 1943. Saddled with bureaucracy, rattled by air-raid sirens that went off at random times, the council teetered on coming apart. “We’re just not going to take it anymore,” one member told the Washington Post. But one program the council agreed on was Victory Gardens. Irrigation pumps were ordered and a dozen gardens laid out across the city (“6000 Garden Plots Ready for Allocation” proclaimed the Post). Through the war, nationwide community gardens supplied 40 percent of the nation’s vegetable consumption.
Through the decades, that origin story bolstered the Cleveland Park community garden against meddling and foiled attempts to divert the land to other uses. Wedged between Rock Creek Park and an apartment complex, the garden has weathered wildlife and rogue planners with its own brand of weedy vigor. Peter Peart, who has tended his plot since 1980, tells how the garden withstood those challenges, and how it finds itself in the vanguard of climate change adaptation.
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