Thursday, April 23, 2009

Blair Gardener on Takoma Voice

From Takoma Voice April 2009 issue
by Ashley Bryant
photos by Julie Wiatt

While incense and meditative music fill the air, the customary greeting of “peace” flows through the purple halls of Dr. Nazirahk Amen’s Carroll Avenue shop, Wisdom Path Healing Center. He hopes the word peace doesn’t loosely deflect from one person to the next—but penetrates the minds and souls of those his words meet. He is taking steps to get beneath the surface with his words as well as his hands by connecting the community back to its roots, not through any genealogic pursuits, but literally through gardening.

The doctor is a father, husband, organic merchant, community gardener, practitioner of naturopathy, and acupuncture, who many in the community have seen cloaked from head to toe in purple garments with locks more than 20 years in the making draped well beyond his back.

Dr. Amen is a man of many virtues—but a natural gardener.
He began gardening as small boy with his family in the rural South—where he was introduced to the techniques of organic and container gardening. As a child, his family cultivated their own crops and bartered food with neighbors.

“Can and freeze—that’s what we did,” Dr. Amen said jokingly of his early experience with farming. “That was the only stock market I knew.”

It was the autobiography of Malcolm X, the declining health of members within his community—the ultimate search for a purer spiritual and physical body that lead him to his current organic state of being. As a paramedic and volunteer for EMS (emergency medical services), Dr. Amen saw the ins and outs of the nursing home and emergency room. He observed a culture where black men were being self-destructive, and thought “I don’t want to do that.” He gave up meat, along with negativity and hostility in his cultural adaptation and began to take responsibility for himself, which led into his spiritual adaptation. “You have to open your heart and realize you have what you have,” he said.

He is a member of the Nahziryah Monastic Community—a community many people affectionately call “the purple people.” According to the community’s website, “the color purple is a color of the highest spiritual vibratory light…the age of enlightenment….universal consciousness…an aura conducive to, assists in, and embraces the direction, the goal.”

Although the NMC practices intensive organic gardening as a part of their vegan/vegetarian diet, Dr. Amen’s passion for gardening transcends beyond that. Dr. Amen intends to spread his greeting of peace to the soul and soil of his neighbors by breaking the disconnect he says individuals have with gardening. “There is a lot of disconnect that needs to be reconnected,” said Amen. “We have to make the places where we are sustainable—everyone can’t run to the mountains when there is a crisis.”

According to Dr. Amen, the act of gardening was devalued as individuals put more focus on the need for higher education; school was important, while gardening was considered menial labor.

“Gardening is like a love—a movement that needs to happen,” said Dr. Amen. “[We] can’t wait for the government to decide local organic produce is the way to go.”

Dr. Amen says that many people are overly focused on earning a living, while other aspects of society are being neglected. People are in a “rat race to pay bills—we don’t even know our neighbors anymore,” he said. “It’s about getting some of that back.”

According to Dr. Amen, gardeners are natural time keepers who observe and follow nature instead of “working with a force beyond egotistic capacity to control the environment.”

He champions the initiative to grow locally for healthy alternatives and community sustainability. “It’s very clear to a lot of people that we need to grow locally—eat locally,” he said. His business helps members of the community design their own gardens, produce more food for an area, and teach them how to prepare meals with the food they grow.

Dr. Amen cited the levels of toxicity within the environment and the Chesapeake in particular—and pointed to organic gardening as a viable option to eradicate the negative chemical effects on food. He said people today use harmful pesticides to make gardening faster instead of educating themselves about natural methods.

In his basement and attic, Dr. Amen uses a coconut core base growing medium and compost to soil the plants in his greenhouse. The area is lined with a fan, humidifier, flower pots, and colorful blue and red LED lights that give off a violet hue to sustain the green life within the purple confines of his home. “I’m sure other people that have this type of set up aren’t growing anything legal,” he said of his greenhouse filled with houseplants, figs, pomegranate, ginger, tomatoes and peppers.

Dr. Scott Lastrapes, a medical doctor with a specialty in family medicine, Howard University assistant professor and colleague of Dr. Amen, who many know as Dr. Scott, shares a plot of land within Blair Community Gardens, located in the District of Columbia with Dr. Amen. In their garden, plots had rows of trenches that they were going to mulch and use as paths as well as rows of soil piled higher than ground level for the plants. White onions and red onions are scattered on a patch of raised land, while sugar snap peas are set to grow tall alongside carrots on both sides of the raised beds—an intensive gardening plan they implement to effectively use their land resources.

Dr. Scott is working with Dr. Amen to bring alternative medicine to the conventional scene. He wants to bring healthier food into hospital menus by advocating for care facilities to grow their own food. He wants to reconnect people to farming in healthy ways. “The farm experience needs to be re-embraced,” said Dr. Scott. According to Dr. Scott, there is no place for small farmers and conventional farming because of subsidies that make it hard for individuals with small crops to earn a living.

He wants to “get to a place where you don’t have to do anything,” with the soil. “All we have to do is feed the soil—it will take care of the plants,” said Scott. “We are putting stuff in with the intention that the garden will be sustainable in the future,” Scott said of using compost to nurture the soil.

Dr. Amen’s gardening techniques have subtly followed him since his childhood, and continue to be an emerging force in his current approach to the soil and the soul. The adage ‘you are what you eat,’ is no play on words in the purple house, where the belief is the diet directly correlates to the workings of the body. According to Dr. Amen, western medicine doesn’t fully recognize the role food has in disease, and genetic manipulation isn’t being taken seriously either. “In health there is no other—you create your own situation,” said Dr. Amen. He says he teaches patients the “energetics” of food to help them find which food bests suits their bodies. “There just is—people do what’s right for them,” he said of people taking responsibility for what food enters their bodies.

According to Dr. Amen and Dr. Scott, there are proposals in the works for future community gardens at Sligo Mill Park and Poplar Mill Park. The doctors advocate a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, where advanced gardeners teach others how to plant in order to have a cycle of effective harvests.


To Michelle: Don't Say We Didn't Warn You About Gardening in D.C.

From Washington Post Article

Dear Mrs. Obama,

We in the vegetable-gardening world were thrilled to see you plant the new plot on the South Lawn of the White House. What an inspiration, not just to the grade-schoolers who helped you, but to everyone interested in reviving the idea of growing one's own food. Farmers markets and community-supported agriculture are fine ways to get local produce, but nothing is fresher, more nutritious or better tasting than well-grown veggies raised at home.

There can be a few pitfalls, however, which I'd like to share in the interest of making this a resounding success.

Washington offers a long but challenging climate for vegetable gardening. Take peas, for example. Sow them too early and they will rot in wet clay soil. Sow them too late and they will mature in June when the heat and humidity suppress flowering and pod development. The window for planting them was March 28 between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Missed the boat? Don't worry. You can sow lettuce instead, which will mature quickly as the soil warms and won't bolt, turn bitter and go to seed for ages, until at least the week after next.

In time, the lettuce will be plagued by an insect called the leafhopper. It is a wary thing, difficult to squish. Did you ever see the movie "Goldfinger," when James Bond and the villain Oddjob were about to go mano a mano at Fort Knox, circling each other in the gold vault? That's the same sort of choreography as with a leafhopper. And just as you get close to it, it doesn't whip out a bowler hat with a razor-sharp brim; it just hops away. Hence the name.

I forgot to mention slugs, which are a particular problem during wet springs. Poisons are available but nasty, and a threat to the girls' new puppy, Bo. One option is to go out late at night with a flashlight and water pistol filled with a bleach solution, and give them a squirt. Do alert the Secret Service first. Some gardeners recommend hand-picking slugs, but I don't. The slime, well, it's unspeakable and a devil to wash off. Hens do a good job of eating the slugs, but they'll scratch up everything else. And they'll draw foxes and hawks. Stick to the water pistol.

In the spring, it is not unusual to check the garden in the morning and find all your beloved seedlings reduced to stalks. That probably not the work of bunny rabbits but a plump, brown, soil-dwelling caterpillar called a cutworm. These minor setbacks are the stuff of vegetable gardening. Sow again and place a collar of some sort around the emerging seedlings. You could use the cardboard cores of toilet paper rolls, but the garden is just visible from E Street NW, where tourists from around the world take lots of pictures. Try tomato paste cans instead.

And speaking of tomatoes, you must save room for America's favorite vegetable, er, fruit . . . er, berry. Remind the Marine One pilots to stay clear of the vegetable garden, because once a vine is beaten down, it's tough to reattach it to its stake or cages.

There are just one or two things to fret about when it comes to the willing and easy tomato.

In late June, you will notice the lower leaves turning yellow, developing spots and falling off. This is a disease called early blight, which if unchecked will seriously weaken a plant. If you coddle the vine and it survives till August, the lower leaves may still turn yellow and develop spots. This is called late blight.

If the tomato survives early and late blight, the fruit may still blacken at the base, rendering it inedible. The condition, in the trade, is known as blossom end rot and is caused by a lack of calcium and uneven watering.

While the vigilant gardener is searching for rotten fruit, she is also on the lookout for missing foliage and dark droppings. This is the work of a caterpillar called the tomato hornworm. The hornworm is about the size of a hamster but rendered invisible by green skin the same shade as the vine. It can be picked off if you have good eyes and a better grip.

The only other thing you might encounter with tomatoes at this latitude is fruit scorching in the intense sunlight. Sunscald, as it is called, is easily countered by strapping umbrellas to reinforced iron bars plunged on the northwest side of the vine. To avoid damage to the umbrellas, put them down when you see a summer storm racing up the Potomac.

Speaking of that majestic river, which recalls the world of Native Americans, why not try that ingenious combination of plantings championed by the indigenous peoples known as the three sisters? Corn stalks rise through a living mulch of squash, while pole beans lean on the corn stalks. It's a gardener's trifecta, and a cook's, too.

When the squash begins to spread, keep an eye on the lower leaves for sudden wilting. This is caused by a worm, the squash vine borer, which hatches within the vine near its base. Sometimes you can save the vine from certain death by taking a razor blade and slicing lengthwise along the stem to expose and kill the worm before you bury the stalk in soil to reroot. Survival is a long shot, but what else are you gonna do?

The beans should be all right, as long as you can dash outside at the first sign of Japanese beetles and pick off the scouts before the rest of the army arrives. In August, the ripening of the corn is always a moment of pride and, perhaps, a little trepidation. It helps to think of this moment as akin to a fairy tale, namely "Jack and the Beanstalk." The bean is the beanstalk; the ear of corn is the hen that lays golden eggs. And Jack? A brown rat.

But enough of this rodent talk; let's think of summer's bounty. What can be cooler or more refreshing than a freshly picked cucumber? As long as you can keep the cucumber beetle at bay, you won't have to worry about deathly bacterial wilt at all. Fungal wilt, maybe, but not bacterial wilt.

Peppers are generally easy and, while somewhat prone to the same diseases as tomatoes, pest-free. If they do get a disease called phytophthora, the peppers are doomed -- but at least Malia and Sasha will blow everyone away at the next spelling bee.

I do hope you try potatoes. They are easily started from little seed tubers. Remember to harvest the new potatoes when the plants are blooming. There is very little to worry about, in terms of pests and disease. Well, if you discount the Colorado potato beetle, scab and the potato blight.

You know what, Mrs. Obama? There's a Whole Foods Market about eight blocks north of the White House. I'll e-mail the directions.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Garden From Above

View Larger Map

Contact Information

The garden is located in Northwest Washington DC at the corner of Oglethorpe St and Blair Rd. If you are in the metro line, you can see the garden on right hand side between Takoma Park and Forttotten in direction to Shady Grove.
Follow THIS link to see a google map.

If you need more information try catching our Garden Coordinator, Howard Williams, on a Sunday afternoon.


Rules and Regulations

Rules are given to all gardeners once they receive a plot...mainly, they want you to garden organically, and grow annuals. One very important rule for Blair is that gardeners pick up trash throughout the garden. Another important rule is that gardeners maintain the pathways around their plot by keeping the grass cut short, and keeping the weeds in their garden short, so as not to produce seed. The park service requires that each gardener grow no more than 15% ornamentals, as they don't want you to sell what you grow. For that matter, you can't grow that which is illegal in DC. We have an annual picnic.