“Everybody loves David.”
Ray Brown, former co-owner of Brown’s Deli in Frederick, has just arrived at his plot at the FNP Community Garden, hoping to get a little work done before a looming thunderstorm hits.
“Oh, stop!” David Muns says in response, laughing. But the sentiment rings true.
Muns, a young 75-year-old who manages the gardens on the grounds of The Frederick News-Post, catches up with a handful of folks who are out on a Saturday afternoon, and you can almost see the ripple effect of his presence — smiles appearing on the faces of those he connects with, as he makes his way through the labyrinth of raised beds and trellises, carrying a white five-gallon bucket of just-picked strawberries. He has the uncanny ability to make people laugh. And it’s not simply his good sense of humor.There’s an integrity about Muns, an authenticity that people seem to immediately pick up on, feeling at ease in his presence.
A Master Gardener, he’s clearly here to work, as evidenced by the garden’s incredible expanse under his leadership, and he’s here to build something worthwhile for the Earth and for the Frederick community (no herbicides or pesticides are allowed in the gardens). But he’s also here to enjoy life and connect with people.
He’s also here Monday through Friday — sometimes more — entirely as a volunteer.
A spry and energetic man, Muns has farming in his blood.This relationship began when he was a young boy, growing up on his family’s farm inWestern Pennsylvania. There his father, a steelworker, and mother taught him the basics of growing and harvesting vegetables.They’d eat most of their crop but sold corn and apples to neighbors for extra income. By the time he finished high school, Muns was ready to leave home and never farm again, he says. He went to Penn State, studied education, and taught English to seventh- through 12th-graders for 43 years in Montgomery County. But when he retired in 2008, he started gardening again.
“I really missed getting my hands dirty,” says Muns, who lives in Frederick now with his wife, Debby.
A couple of News-Post staffers started the FNP Community Garden nearly a decade ago as a way to utilize the grounds of their new headquarters on Ballenger Center Drive, rather than mow it. Muns happened upon the gardens coincidentally, you might say; he temporarily took over the plot of a neighbor who was out of town. By the following year, 2010, he was managing the gardens.
“This man outworks everyone here,” Brown says.
Every year since Muns took over, it has grown, bit by bit. New plants and structures pop up — a picnic table, a toolshed, huge compost heaps, a small greenhouse. He’s grown the garden from 30 to 135 plots (now 85 families grow food there) he’s ensured that water is available via hydrants that bring it up from a retention pond on the property; he’s brought on dozens of families and keeps track of an ongoing waiting list; he budgets the money received from plot rentals to buy things like tractors, mowers and tillers to keep the gardens in good working order. Really, without Muns, the community garden most likely would never have become the biggest in Frederick County — and possibly all of Maryland.
On top of overseeing the gardens, Muns maintains 20 plots himself, and he, as well as some other gardeners there, donate the food to local nonprofits, such as the Frederick Rescue Mission, Seed of Life Nurseries, The Frederick Church and CrossRoads Freedom Center.
Muns’ most recent development are the bees — and the 7,000-square-foot field that he’s transformed to contain long rows of grapevines and berry bushes, as well as an apiary. He built the apiary about three years ago and has been working to develop the field to attract honeybees and native bees alike, planting large patches of flowering perennials. One portion has been planted in a circular design with stone walkways through it. He plans to add a bench to make the space more inviting to visitors, whether they are fellow gardeners, employees in the News-Post building, which now serves as office space for additional businesses, or curious people in the community.
Foxglove, marshmallow, borage, lavender, hyssop and other perennials bloom from March through October (intentional, so that the bees will have pollen to eat throughout most of the year).The colors are exquisite: the glowing indigo blues of blue tansy, the rich golden centers of chamomile. He planted locust, elderberry and hazelnut trees nearby, too, all for the 10 colonies of bees living there. His hope is that the pollinators’ paradise will keep them close to home. Because bees can fly three to four miles from their hive, planting perennials they like will lessen the risk of them leaving for good.
“This is just the beginning,” Muns says while standing in the middle of the space, which is dotted with small educational sign posts that show photos of the flowers and give their Latin names.
It sounds like something he’d say.
Look closely and you’ll notice multiple experiments and new projects in the works: A pile of bicycle wheels, donated by The Bicycle Escape in Frederick, is in the grass, ready to become one of Muns’ next projects, an upcycled trellis for climbing vines. Large beds of lettuce and spinach are left intact from last year’s crop, the flowers of which may or may not attract bees (Muns keeps records on what bees go after and follows up each season accordingly).
“Every year, I say I’m gonna cut back,” he says with a laugh.
The expansion has drawn Frederick County Beekeepers’ Association, 4H Clubs and Frederick County Master Gardeners to the site for tours, provided by Muns, of course.
In his spare time, he volunteers at CrossRoads in Ijamsville, a Christian-based recovery program that provides housing, counseling, employment resources — and in some cases, gardening skills — to men in recovery. Muns helps to manage the gardens there and mentors people one-on-one, teaching them the basics of planting, watering and harvesting food.
“The older you get, the more you have to keep learning stuff,” Muns says. “I see people retire and just playing pickleball. I mean, life is more than pickleball!”
He leans over and, with his bare hands, uproots thistle from a raised bed. “It’s about giving back,” he goes on and then launches into a discourse on bees again, how they have one purpose when they swarm.
“Their purpose is to recolonize, to regenerate to continue the species,” he says. If a honeybee stings you, it dies; its instinct is to give its life for the survival of the group, Muns says, so that the group can go on pollinating … and pollinating ensures that the plants go on living and reproducing.
Muns’ eyes light up when he talks about this interconnectedness, much like the way he lights up when he spots a young man and woman come by their garden plot that day, to get some weekend work in.
“This couple is so neat!” he exclaims, and heads toward them with his bucket of strawberries.
For more information or to volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in Senior Living, July 2018.
Photo by Bill Green, Frederick News-Post.