At first glance it appears incongruous to see Old City Farm and Guild founder and entrepreneur Frank Asher working atop a concrete urban plaza. Except it’s not.
Asher relocated his popular “full-fledged garden and nursery center” to a spot abutting vacant Shaw Middle School near 9th Street on the busy Rhode Island Avenue thoroughfare in Northwest Washington last year. Opening on the official first day of spring, the non-profit retail operation will soon blossom in vivid colors as the scents of summer become pervasive and the weather warms.
Initiated six years ago in a trash-strewn empty lot across from his nearby home in the rapidly developing Shaw neighborhood, Asher’s enterprise is rooted in a larger philosophy. “It’s very important as the city evolves and grows that we stay connected to green space and the earth,” he says.
True to that mission, a D.C. education grant has enabled creation of an on-site gardening program at Seaton Elementary School a block away. “We teach students to both grow and sell,” Asher proudly says, “connecting them with urban gardening.” Citywide school groups frequently tour the nursery.
The place “where people and plants come together” additionally serves as a community gathering spot, hosting performances by local musicians in a step-down oval space serving as an amphitheater for outdoor neighborhood dances and movie nights projecting films onto a whitewashed wall. Locals can rent an equipped lounging and grilling spot for social gatherings.
Open every day except Mondays at 925 Rhode Island Ave., N.W., Asher and a revolving crew of eight welcome both novice and experienced gardeners from the surrounding neighborhood and throughout the District to the high-profile site. The knowledgeable and personable staff is on hand Tuesday through Friday from noon to 7:30 p.m., and weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A large hand-painted wooden sign affixed to a wire fence enclosing the area beckons customers and curious alike to the oasis inside. Gardening aficionados or aspirants find everything they need – including a wide variety of seedlings, perennial and annual flowering plants, vegetable plants, fruit trees and vines, edible area-native plantings, shrubs, pre-bagged organic mulches and soils and compost, gardening supplies, propane, pots, garden artifacts and other accoutrements.
The nursery team maintains a small farming operation providing local restaurants with fresh organic produce. They hope to grow this new component by signing on additional establishments. During the winter holiday season, they reopen as a Christmas tree lot.
“Unlike large retailers,” Asher points out, “85 percent of all monies stay in the neighborhood.” Everything is sourced exclusively from organic D.C.-based city farmers and small local producers. A robust assortment of blueberry, raspberry, pomegranate, native currants, grape vines, fig and persimmon and apple and pear trees are available. Okra, tomato, tomatillo, basil, bell pepper, arugula, eggplant, leek, Brussels sprouts and a selection of herbs are among the popular garden offerings.
Asher, a California native who moved to D.C. 20 years ago as a conference organizer, began tending to sidewalk “tree boxes” near his then Dupont Circle home. Storefront merchants would soon reimburse the “guerilla gardener” for supplies, supporting his streetscape labor of love.
“I discovered my bliss was playing in the dirt,” the unexpected green thumb now says. Pleasure with plants would land him a job managing a floral shop. Asher’s newfound profession later led to start-up of landscaping business Fairies’ Crossing, specializing in residential, rooftop and commercial installations.
As Asher’s nursery grows, he balances landscaping projects with managing the enterprise. “What keeps me motivated,” Asher says, “is the appreciation of the community” and joining together to make “the urban environment more responsible and encouraging green space.”