By Claritza Jimenez
Before the two-level Target opened its doors, before the Metro station began picking up and dropping off passengers on the next block, before the new tenants moved into the freshly painted condominiums and lofts, a tiny plot of land existed on 14th street and Columbia. More than a decade later, it remains here still.
More than a decade earlier, it was on the cusp of being transformed.
The tiny plot of land at CentroNia, a community center in Columbia Heights, brought together Lola Bloom and Rebecca Lemos. First as high school students volunteering after school at CentroNia, then as colleagues learning to garden in the same plot of land, later as confidantes – and ultimately as partners in their non-profit organization.
Before Bloom and Lemos entered the picture, children at CentroNia used the parcel of land out front as a play area. A one-time summer program turned it into a garden, but that didn’t really go anywhere when the outside group that started the garden didn’t return. Employees at CentroNia asked Bloom and Lemos to do something about the plot of land. Neither had any idea what to do with it.
“I just remember I was walking around in circles like, what am I going to do here?” Bloom says. “And there was a lot of trash and a lot of beer bottles. There was weird stuff I was digging up all the time. And I was like, ‘OK, let’s get the kids out,’ and the kids where all over the place because I didn’t know what to tell them to do, and it was a little chaotic.”
More than a decade later, Bloom is using that same parcel of land to teach gardening classes at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter school, which is operated out of CentroNia.
Sitting in the teacher’s lounge in the basement, Bloom doesn’t get much of a break. Children pop their heads into the lounge to say “hi” or ask her a question. Like a mom used to having her kids interrupt “adult” conversations, she answers patiently.
The mostly self-taught gardener is wearing blue jeans, sneakers and a worn-out gray hoodie under an apron that could pass for a springtime dress. It reaches to her knees and it is printed with yellow and pink flowers. Bloom’s maple-brown wavy hair is parted in two lose buns at the nape of her neck. Sometimes she rest her long fingers on her temples thinking, such as when she reminisces about the growing pains of evolving from an amateur to an experienced gardener. Her metallic blue nail polish is starting to chip at the tips.
Her first summer working on the garden, Bloom says, she planted lots of marigolds. According to Bloom, that’s the only plant she really knew about. Bloom says her father drove her to The Home Depot where she bought 20 marigolds and planted them, in addition to some sunflowers and petunias.
“I did not know what I was doing. I put everything out there, directly on the soil. No mulching, watered it a bit and hoped for the best.”
Similar to Bloom, Lemos admits she went into gardening knowing nothing about it. Lemos is squatted on top a blue classroom chair in the computer lab at CentroNia. Her navy blue sunglasses don’t last long on top of her head. She pulls them off and plays around with them while shifting her legs from under her, first tucking them under, then crossing them.
Lemos compares her first gardening experience to her first kiss: She doesn’t remember either one. But after getting her first taste of gardening, she says, she remembers getting “ridiculously hooked” on it.
Lemos says she became so enamored with gardening that, since she couldn’t drive a car yet, she used a folding shopping cart to take three bags of manure she bought at a hardware store to the garden. For several blocks, Lemos pushed the cart from Adams Morgan to Columbia Heights.
“So [the bags] smell bad, kind of ripping out a bit. I’m trying to maneuver it [the cart] around the sidewalks just to get these bags of manure to this little plot of garden,” Lemos says.
Through trial and error, they got the hang of . The activity they enjoyed during their time off from high school and later college turned serious. Bloom says the summer before graduating college, the two had a meeting and decided to team up instead of alternating their work on the garden during the summertime. According to Bloom they asked themselves, why not make gardening their lifestyle? Why not make gardening their full-time jobs?
Both women got their hands on gardening books and participated in workshops. In 2003, they considered formalizing their gardening work as a non-profit and in 2004 they carved out a mission statement. Three yeas later, they officially founded City Blossoms. So far, they’ve grown eight gardens in Columbia Heights, Takoma Park and Baltimore. Their newest gardening project is located in the Shaw Neighborhood in NW D.C.
Bloom and Lemos took on community gardening before its recent resurgence across the country. According to the American Community Garden Association, there are between 18,000 to 20,000 community gardens nationwide and the number is rising.
However, when the pair experimented with gardening in the late 1990s, other area groups were already engaging in community gardening in D.C., according to Judy Tiger, the former executive director of Garden Resources of Washington (GROW).
“What makes them stand apart is they way they integrate hands-on gardening, education and art. I don’t know anyone else doing that [in D.C.]. That makes them real special,” says Tiger, whose non-profit helped start and fund community greening projects for more than a decade. Lemos and Bloom both credit Tiger for teaching them the fundamentals of organic gardening.
“They really put the children right in the center,” Tiger says about Bloom’s and Lemos’ approach to gardening. According to Tiger, combining hands-on gardening and hands-on art motivates the children to learn.
“They don’t do classic standard community garden. They are pioneers in that regard,” says Katie Rehwaldt, with the national non-profit, America The Beautiful Fund. Rehwaldt also sits on City Blossoms’ board of directors.
Rehwaldt says that using art in the garden sparks the children’s creativity and gardening can be used as a tool to facilitate learning in different academic subjects.
Bloom studied art in college and incorporates it into the curriculum she develops for the gardening projects. For one of her classes, Bloom had her pre-kindergarten students read the children’s book, “Planting a Rainbow,” which is about a mother teaching her child how to grow flowers in a garden. The students drew their own flowers as pages for the book. The students worked on their literacy skills while learning about gardening, Bloom says.
Lemos is also trained as an art teacher Lemos says that at first it can be a battle to get the children to feel comfortable in the garden because they tend to complain about the “icky” factor of putting their hands in the soil and getting dirty.
However, she says, “If you get rid of that and if you are willing to explore getting a little dirty that means you’re more willing to explore, more willing to experiment, take in your environment and do and touch and experiment, which in turn leads to creative thought process.”
The gardening work Bloom and Lemos perform in Columbia Heights also confronts a reality of this neighborhood – crime. Bloom says when they started the first garden, she viewed it as a peace-building tool that provided children with a safe outdoor space.
“I could never say planting a seed stops a bullet because that’s not true and never will be,” Bloom says. “But I think it’s just a matter of getting kids to think in more peaceful ways and how to interact with each other in more peaceful ways.”
Overtime, as their interest in gardening intensified, so did Lemos’ and Bloom’s friendship. Initially, Bloom admits, there was some tension.
“Rebecca goes to art school, so do I. Rebecca studies abroad, so do I. Rebecca does this, so do I,” Bloom says in a taunting voice. “Everyone was always like, you should be friends with Rebecca and I was like, screw this!”
Lemos says this is a constant in their friendship, “How do we keep our individuality when those arounds us want to compare? I even made t-shirts that said ‘Robola and Lobeca’ because it was the joke that were were interchangeable.”
For Lemos, the initial tension was more about learning to share a plot of land that they both had fallen in love with individually, and both felt very protective of.
But the more they worked together, Bloom says they just clicked.
“This is what I imagine marriage to be like.” She adds, “It’s a very nice balance between the two of us. I hope marriage is like that because it’s not so bad if it’s like that.”
Bloom looks at their partnership as an example of women working well together.
“I think that’s what great about what she and I do. It’s walking the talk. You know, women can join forces and it doesn’t have to be my nonprofit versus your nonprofit and my goals versus your goals. We can take advantage of each other’s strengths and make each other rise up together.”