The Garden Angel of Upton

When Gloria Luster works in the three-acre urban community garden she created, the neighbors have a nickname for her.

"They call me the Garden Angel," she said, laughing.

The nickname is well deserved. Over the past eight years, Gloria has taken three square blocks of abandoned lots in the Upton neighborhood of West Baltimore and created the Gardens of Hope. Before the Gardens of Hope, these city blocks were filled with weeds and garbage and were a haven for drug activity. Now, the garden is filled with flowers and vegetables, is a meeting place and a source of pride for the community and is a symbol of a community revitalizing itself.

Gloria's Vision and Her Garden
In 1993, Gloria decided to take advantage of a city program that allowed people to adopt abandoned lots. She signed a lease with the city for 14 lots, and that year she began building gardens by herself. Eight years later she oversees 79 lots in three square blocks and has dozens of community members who help.

"My vision was to take over a sizeable amount of public land and open it up to everyone," she said, "and have many different people getting together and forming community in the process of growing vegetables and flowers organically."

Gloria began learning how to garden, when she was just five years old, from her grandfather. He taught her how to garden from the soil up. "We would put all of the excess plants in a pile. We didn't call it composting, but that was what we did," she said. They also grew everything organically, just like everyone else did before chemicals were widely available.

Now, seven decades later, she's still dedicated to techniques she first learned from her grandfather. She's a Master Gardener and a Master Composter, and she aims to teach people how to garden in harmony with nature. "We compost, we grow in leaf mold, we don't use any toxic chemicals," she said.

Flowers and vegetables are just part of the harvest each year at Gardens of Hope. A rising community spirit is another.

"Crime has dropped," she said, ticking off changes to the neighborhood. "It was at one time a heavily infested drug area. Where there used to be weeds facing the street, now there are flowers. The neighbor across the street now cleans up her entire side of the street."

More people are getting involved in the garden, including young people. "I have a number of young people with court-ordered community service who are helping. And a couple of them have really been bitten by the gardening bug," she said.

That is what she was hoping for all along.

"People in areas such as this don't generally own anything or very little, and they feel like nothing good is ever going to happen to them so why bother," she said. "But people are now claiming ownership of the garden and they are beginning to be quite protective of the garden."

We congratulate this inspiring woman who surely deserves her nickname.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact us at: gardenactivist@gardeners.com

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