By Jody Lautenschlager, Dale St Garden Manager, and Susan Stalder, Extension Master Gardener
Photos courtesy of Susan Stalder
The Dale St Community Garden, located at 65 Dale Street in Alexandria, is a thriving new example of a green and lovely garden spot that not only offers local residents space to grow crops and flowers but also teaches sustainable gardening practices and the benefits of fresh food and the uses of native plants.
The Dale St Community Garden is sandwiched between Four Mile Run Park and Cora Kelly Elementary School and near the Leonard “Chick” Armstrong Recreation Center in the diverse neighborhood of Arlandria. Opened in the fall of 2018, the community garden has 42 raised beds, several structures including a growing arbor, and communal space tying it to Four Mile Run Park and the Hume Springs playground across the street.
Across the cities of Alexandria and Arlington there are wonderful examples of community activities building sustainable gardening programs and teaching residents about fresh food and the need to protect open space. Among such spaces are community gardens, where residents can rent plots to grow produce for home use.
The need for a community garden in the northern Alexandria area of Chirilagua/Hume Springs/Lynn Haven neighborhoods was identified during the development of the Four Mile Run Park’s improvement plan in 2014. The community garden’s infrastructure was built in 2018 through a partnership between the City of Alexandria and a coalition of sponsors led by Rebuilding Together Alexandria, a nonprofit focused on maintaining low-income housing, renovating public parks and open spaces, and creating opportunities for homeownership.
Through this partnership, the once fenced in meadow was turned into a symmetrically and aesthetically pleasing pattern of raised garden beds with a dual-purpose open green space intended for both gardening and communal use. The approved design of the mixed-use garden included a perimeter of native and pollinator friendly plantings; however, due to the unusually heavy rainy season in 2018, these perennial beds were not installed until the spring of 2019. At that point the garden team focused on the design and installation of the additional communal garden beds, expanding the original concept to include permaculture garden beds, butterfly education beds, an asparagus forest, and border perennial beds with native plants.
Expansion of the Garden
Through the stewardship of Suzanne Bouchard (City Horticulturist of Alexandria), the generous support of HITT Contracting, and the design and project management efforts of the community garden’s manager, Jody Lautenschlager, additional demonstration space was designated for locally appropriate produce and native plants. Toward that end, teaching beds were installed in May 2019 to complete the original concept of the community garden. All plants were chosen based on their cultural requirements, pest resistance, environmental benefits, and suitability for the site. The new design also includes planting areas for native vegetation that serves multiple functions. For example, the border beds provide screening and also use a mix of native species to provide food, habitat, and pollinator plants for local wildlife. The northern border also serves as a rain garden to help remedy ponding issues along the fence line. The native perennials like Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan) and Baptisia australis (blue wild indigo) provide food for bees, but also butterflies, songbirds and other beneficial insects. The native shrubs chosen for the project (Cephalanthus occidentalis (buttonbush) Cornus amomum (silky dogwood), etc.) are important for their berries, pollinating flowers, and high wildlife value. A few non-natives, such as Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight,’ were added to balance the design and provide an ornamental foundation to the plantings.
The 400-plus newly installed plants have transformed the community garden’s perimeter, creating a welcoming atmosphere and providing learning opportunities for the local community. The plant species chosen for the project demonstrate how native pollinator and edible plants can coexist and provide an enormous environmental benefit while also meeting community expectations of a beautiful garden landscape.
Dale St Community Garden showcases the importance of community partnerships, education and urban agriculture. It sits along a popular walking route for residents, including children traveling back and forth from school. Many of them have stopped to ask the gardeners about the plants and have asked to help. The garden is now partnering with the Alexandria City Public Schools Garden Liaison to develop educational opportunities for students to learn about fresh food and native plants.
The community garden members have stepped up to weed, water and harvest. Community garden members are required to volunteer throughout the year to support the garden’s maintenance, including some communal areas. All produce from the new communal plantings, including fruit, berries, and herbs will be used in educational demonstrations, donated to the City’s food bank, or utilized by park patrons. The Dale St Garden Board works with city staff to manage the community garden and determine how the produce will be used in future seasons following their community inclusion plan.
Recently, the Garden held a potluck dinner featuring fresh produce from members’ individual garden plots. Delicious pesto, dips, and salads accompanied fresh pizzas grilled right in the garden. After months of hard work, the garden members felt their efforts were really worth it!
Educators and Collaborators Wanted
Dale St Community Garden is a great outdoor classroom for garden educators. Because most ofthe garden members work and do not have time to attend the many wonderful programs around Alexandria and Arlington, educational activities tend to take place right at the garden with monthly All Hands Gardening Events.
There are opportunities for any interested Master Gardener to visit the Dale St Community Garden and provide mentoring and on-site talks to help new gardeners develop their skills. Look for notices of upcoming opportunities through the Master Gardener email system, the MGNV Speaker’s Bureau, or contact Susan Stalder at her email address if you have any questions.
Master Gardener Susan Stalder is the liaison to Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia and currently sits on the Dale St Community Garden Board.
Garden Manager Jody Lautenschlager has led the effort for development and education at the Dale St Community Garden from its inception and seeks to work with other garden enthusiasts to sustain the garden. She may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.