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Residents and Columbia Archives celebrate Columbia Gardeners

At this time of year, Columbia's three community gardens are bursting with produce.

But there is something else that stands out among the rows of fruits and vegetables: the interaction between gardeners and the sense of community.

"This is an information sharing site," said Bill Small as he worked on his two garden plots at the program's West Side location off Martin Road near the Route 29 and Route 32 interchange.

"We have people come by the garden and ask, 'Why are you growing it this way? Or what is this bug?' ... So there's a lot of information sharing."

The Columbia Gardeners program began in the late 1960's as a way for residents living on small plots of land to grow their own produce, according to Columbia Gardeners historian Mary Gold. As the story goes, Evelyn Haynes, one of the organization's founders, approached Columbia founder Jim Rouse and asked if undeveloped land owned by an off-shoot of the Rouse Company, called Howard Research and Development (HRD), could be used as garden plots before construction. Rouse agreed.

"There was a wave of community gardens during the mid-70s," said Alex Hekimian, who was president of the Columbia Gardeners in 1975. "We didn't think it was just a fad. We knew this was something people would want back then and in the future."

The history of the Columbia Gardeners is now an exhibit at the Columbia Archives, located in the American Cities building on Wincopin Circle, through Sept. 27. It chronicles the history of the volunteer organization, which began as a group of nomadic gardeners that now cares for more than 600 plots at three community gardens.

Hekimian, who currently serves on the Columbia Association Board of Directors, and other early leaders did two things to enable the program's growth: establish the group as a nonprofit and secure permanent land. In 1977, with the help of Howard County government and HRD, the Columbia Gardeners were able to acquire 250 permanent plots at its first site, Elkhorn, on Oakland Mills Road near Lake Elkhorn.

Less than 15 years later, the group added two smaller sites, one in Long Reach off Old Dobbin Lane and one near Atholton High School called West Side. In 2010 the program expanded again by adding 50 plots to Elkhorn and 50 to Long Reach. Each plot is 20 x 25 feet.

"It fills a great need," said Small, about the program. "Most Columbia houses have small lots with big trees and no sunlight, which are poor conditions for gardening."

For Small and his partner, Barbara Billek, who have been in the program eight years, gardening allows them to produce different varieties of foods and cuts down on trips to the grocery store. Their two-plot garden produces over 10 different fruits and vegetables; everything from edamame to summer squash.

For Marcia Yurko and her plot mate Chiyuki Tanaka, it's not all about how much food you produce.

"It's a labor of love. ... If the critters don't get it or the bugs don't it, we will take it home," said Yurko, smiling. "But I'm just glad we are doing it together. It makes the work more fun."

For River Hill resident Iqbal Sarai, who was born in India, it's about growing food native to India that he can't buy.

"If I want it, I grow my own," Sarai said holding a bitter melon, a fruit used in Indian and Asian recipes .

"You can find it in the Asian stores but its from Florida or somewhere. It tastes different when you pick them and cook them."

According to Columbia Gardeners President Clyde Pyers, the diverse crops people grow in their garden is one of the many positives about the program.

"It adds to the enjoyment and the education value of being a gardener," he said."You learn so much about something beyond what you grew up with. It really adds to the value of the whole experience."

And while it's always good to know where you've been, Pyers, like all true gardeners, has one eye toward the future.

"I would hope we could expand to some degree," said Pyers, who said the group has a waiting list ever year for plots at all three sites.

"We have people that want to garden that we don't have room to accommodate. We continually think about expanding further."

For Hekimian, the question of expansion is not if but when.

"There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction and growing your own produce," Hekimian said. "That's not something one generation values, its enduring through many generations. I suspect Columbia Gardeners will be here for another 100 years."

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