Blues double down on Greener Garden after fire
BALTIMORE — On a late March morning in 2016, after a fire totally destroyed the back end of their hoop greenhouse, Warren Blue of The Greener Garden, a Certified Organic urban farm located in a northeast corner of Baltimore, did the only thing possible: “Called a fella to come truck off the debris and started rebuilding.”
The fire began when a cardboard box caught fire from a heater that had been accidentally left on one evening in the back of the greenhouse. Fueled by the oils in the rosemary plants lining the greenhouse’s back wall, the fire quickly consumed the back wall, the greenhouse’s wood post framing, and all the transplants and seedlings filling the greenhouse’s three long rows of tables, as well as all but the front few feet of the tables themselves.
Surveying the damage the next morning, Blue and his wife Lavette knew one thing: “No, we’re not giving up,” declared Lavette, recalling that morning. “Yet, we were wondering how in the world we’re going to do this.” Although “we received some help from a GoFundMe page, and we were most grateful for that,” Warren said, “we decided to max out our credit cards and move forward.”
Within a month’s time, working late into the night, lights flooding his work area, Warren, calling upon all his skills from the construction career he had retired from 6 years earlier, had rebuilt the greenhouse and the three rows of potting tables along its 32 foot length.
“I’m sure some of our neighbors looked out and saw the lights and wondered what on earth he was doing out there,” said Lavette.
At the end of that month, those same neighbors, interns from Johns Hopkins University and Future Harvest, and other community volunteers then helped the Blues put the heavy-duty plastic over the greenhouse’s top to complete its enclosed environment.
Thanks to Warren’s determination to get back up in production as quickly as possible, the Blues were able to restart their seedlings. During the summer of 2016, they were able to plant not only the three lots they had owned, but two neighbors also allowed them to plant two adjoining lots as well. An abundant harvest that summer helped the Blues begin to recover from their devastating spring loss.
An additional assist came that July when the Blues received the proceeds from a grant from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services to support their urban organic farm. The Blues had applied for the grant at the end of 2015 with the assistance of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder.
“His office has been really helpful to us in the last three years,” said Warren.
Lavette added, “Even though Baltimore City has an Extension service, they’re not really set up for an actual farm situation such as ours. Thanks to our efforts the city agency has actually grown to hire someone who does have the knowledge to handle urban farms.”
During the summer of 2016, the Blues used the first grant’s proceeds to install the first four of the eight greenhouses currently on their farm. In this instance, they had staff from the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore help them with the installation of the frames for those houses.
Unfortunately, due to the time it took for Warren to install the raised beds in those first four greenhouses, their plantings did not begin producing their harvest until January 2017. “But once they got going,” he said, “we harvested out of them all the way through June.”
The NRCS grant for the second set of four greenhouses also arrived in June of 2017. This time, explained Lavette, “we ended up having to pool resources to make the October [funding] deadline.”
“Building those houses took time away from what could have been done on the outside portion of the farm,” added Warren, “So, we didn’t plant as much outside as a result.” In fact, at one point towards the end of this building cycle, they were actually digging up some of the outside plantings – in this instance, the sweet potatoes – to make room for the last of the second set of four houses built.
And this fall, they received a grant to put in an irrigation system to cut down on the extensive daily watering that greenhouses require. Again, the Blues are breaking new ground with this grant, which is the equivalent of receiving a well grant for irrigation purposes. Except in this instance, the Blues are applying to the city for a special community garden meter, which will allow them access to free water from May through October.
More importantly, this fall, the Blues received the second of two formal citations, this one from A Few Good Men of Baltimore, recognizing their humanitarian work in support of their community. Their first was a Governor’s Citation earlier this summer when, in mid-June, they were recognized for their “commendable efforts as true pioneers of urban agriculture, providing fresh vegetables throughout the city for more than two decades, … [and their] continued dedication to sustainable urban farming practices which provides the groundwork for an emerging sector of agriculture industry.”
Both Warren and Lavette said they are thankful that they have become such an essential part of the community around them.
“When the fire happened that spring,” Warren said, “I realized this is what I want to do. This is what I was meant to do, and it made me more determined than ever to get it back up and running.”
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