Planting the Seeds of Community
Assistant Professor Transforms Neighborhood Garden
Walking down the alley off 11th Street in Northwest D.C., it’s hard to miss the oasis among the brick. Kate Tully opens the Columbia Heights Green gate and unleashes her dog, Deedee, who sprints between the rows of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, carrots and more.
Deedee’s not the only one enthusiastic about the Green. Tully, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, has overseen the quarter-acre neighborhood property for four years, replacing underused individual beds with a thriving collective farm.
“Last week we harvested over 85 pounds of greens, of vegetables, which is crazy,” Tully says. “Eighty-five pounds is like a small human.”
Tully, whose family grew fruit trees in California, cemented her love of gardening her junior year at Kenyon College, when she lived on an organic orange and mango farm on Costa Rica. After earning her doctorate at the University of Virginia, she went to Columbia University’s Earth Institute and grew maize in East Africa. Tully accepted a job at UMD and moved to D.C. in 2014, choosing a house right by the neighborhood garden.
“It was a mess,” Tully says. “I was always looking out my window wondering, ‘Is anybody down there?’ There were just a couple people who like grew, like, one kale plant each.”
One day, she finally saw someone—Steve Coleman, director of the nonprofit Washington Parks & People, the Green’s owner—and ran downstairs to meet him. He asked her on the spot to be community coordinator.
Tully tore out the individual plots and banished wait lists, streamlining the garden management and eliminating barriers to entry. Anyone in the neighborhood of over 30,000 can plant—if one volunteer goes out of town, others pick up the slack.
Today, lettuce grows almost too tall to keep up with. An abundance of basil expands under the shade of healthy tomato plants. The peppers are getting plump.
Philip Evich ’18, a student of Tully’s who interned at the Green last summer, created signage to promote it as not only a garden, but also an event space for art shows, poetry nights, work retreats, even birthday parties. The participants have nearly doubled to about 20 per week.
“Everyone that volunteers there looks up to Kate like she’s Goddess Earth,” Evich says.
Tully has more plans. With such lavish harvests, she’s looking for places to donate food. She has concerts and movie nights on the radar. She’s hoping to increase diversity at the Green, so it more closely matches the neighborhood.
“I love watching community happen,” Tully says.