by Sandy Moore
It seems out of place, set less than a city block from a high rise apartment building and new civic center. A solid acre of green. A place to see the sky in what’s fast becoming a tunnel of tall buildings. A farm that advertises on an old-fashioned wooden sign that might say: “Cucumbers,” “Blueberries,”, or “Beets.”
If you walk to downtown Silver Spring on Grove Street, you may have stumbled across the very large vegetable garden that is Charlie Koiner’s “Corner Plot”.
Perhaps as surprising as the garden’s location is the hardy soul who tends it: Charlie Koiner, an octegenerian (he’ll turn 90 years old in November), who still gets up at 4:30 everyday to begin work. To beat the July heat, he sometimes ventures out around 8:30 at night as well, to do some gardening before sunset. He may be the oldest working farmer in Montgomery County.
Charlie Koiner with young farm visitor Min Hunt-Neu, a resident of Silver Spring, and regular at Charlie’s farm. photo by Julie Wiatt
“When you get to be retired and my age,” says Charlie,” you get so you can’t do nothn’ if you just sit around doing nothing.”
Walk down Easley Street from the Safeway on Fenton and you’re likely to see him, among the leafy fig trees or behind the zinnias, pruning or picking. Most days, he’s shaded by a big brimmed cap embroidered with the words, “Koiner Farm”. If you stop to buy vegetables you’ll get to pay the person who picked them, instead of a grocery store clerk. That would be Charlie — or Lynn –Charlie’s adult daughter, who is his business partner, promoter and biggest fan.
He also dispenses lots of gardening advice to customers. “One man told me he was cutting his asparagus year round, and the next year it didn’t come up. I told him: I’m afraid you killed it. You just cut asparagus once, when it comes up in the spring.” Sometimes he borrows ideas from his customers too: like how to use wire cages to keep his peppers off the ground. “As old as I am, I can always find new tricks of the trade.”
A little history
Charlie grew up on a farm in Rockville in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1979 he bought the land in Silver Spring. “That was the smartest move I ever made,” said Charlie “not in terms of the money, but for me.”
He was ahead of his time, bringing farming back to the city. Now, families are clamoring for fresher food, and farm markets have sprung up everywhere, including Takoma Park and Silver Spring. Charlie has a booth at the Silver Spring FreshFarm Market every Saturday morning, along with other farmers who commute from the nearby countryside. He’s a favorite of the crowd there; they recently held a “Charlie Koiner Day” in his honor.
This photo of Charlie Koiner hoeing his crops in the shadow of Silver Spring Towers, comes from the film “Corner Plot.” photo by Ian Cook
Ten minutes of fame
One of Charlie’s regular customers, Andre Dahlman, used to walk past Charlie’s farm on the way to work in downtown Silver Spring. He was so intrigued by the urban farmer that he decided to make a movie about him. Dahlman was joined by fellow filmmaker Ian Cook.; the two spent weeks following Charlie and Lynn. The result is a 10 minute (“short”) documentary film which premiered at the Silver Spring Documentary Film Festival in mid-June.
Charlie didn’t take a limousine to the premiere of “Corner Plot,” or step out onto a red carpet . . . he walked. It’s only about four blocks from his house to the Ellsworth Avenue fountain, where Corner
Plot was screened outdoors. Charlie and his family sat in the front row; he seemed pleased to address the crowd and thank the filmmakers.
Kids and gardens
Although the movie crowd was full of Charlie’s customers and adult fans, there were a few young movie goers as well. Watching the documentary with her Dad, four-year-old Hannah Schmidbauer said: “I really like tomatoes, so I really liked the farmer movie.”
Filmmaker Cook speculates about Charlie’s appeal to families:” It’s a different world from the suburbs, and the busy streets around there. Kids seem to love visiting, and the power of the interaction keeps
Charlie’s mind and body lively.”
Seven-year old Min Hunt-Neu is another of Charlie’s young fans. She and her mother stop often to sample Charlie’s produce. “I was surprised by the figs in the trees,” said Min. Her mother, Mary,
added: “We’re locavores (people who prefer food grown close to where they live). It’s great to have this jewel so close to home, so close to the Metro.”
Over the years, Charlie has been the object of many kids’ curiousity: they come in groups from local schools or community centers.
“We had kids from a Jewish school come to celebrate Sukkot (a harvest holiday), said Lynn. “Many kids have never seen a green bean hanging from a plant – never mind a golden raspberry. When you ask kids where food comes from,” she says with a laugh, “they say – ‘the grocery store!’ But, we also have really healthy kids who come by — like one girl who came on her bike and asked for a cucumber and sat right there in the chair and ate it. We encourage families to take the kids out of their strollers and look around.”
A garden blog & recipes
If you can’t get to the Koiner plot just yet, you can learn more about Charlie on-line. Lynn Koiner has a blog called Charlie Koiner’s Farm/A Downtown Oasis: koinerfarm.blogspot.com. She’s also created a list serve you can join by sending her an e-mail at Koiner@starpower.net. The listserve tells you what they’re selling currently and includes recipes for things like Blueberry-Lemon Tea Bread.
The movie Corner Plot
You can learn more about the movie Corner Plot by visiting the moviemaker’s website, where a film trailer and local showings are listed: cornerplotmovie.com/index2.html
You can also buy a copy of the film from Charlie at the garden stand, or at the Silver Spring Farmer’s Market on Saturdays..