City Gardeners Grow for Themselves and Others
They’re tucked away in the city’s outer boroughs in places people barely notice – behind or between old buildings, in abandoned lots, or buttressed against the walls of elevated subways. All together, 30 food-producing gardens – some as big as 2.5 acres – are bringing people together, providing produce-deficient neighborhoods with fresh veggies, and supplying local pantries and soup kitchens.
Last weekend I visited two city farms in East New York, Brooklyn: United Community Centers Garden, a half-acre garden founded in 1994 and the slightly larger Hands and Heart Garden, which opened last year. I set out to find and meet some of the resident gardeners and farmers. I was lucky. It was Saturday, one of two days the gardeners hold a small farmers market. Some produced enough to sell and earn good money at the market. Others cultivated a few plots just for themselves, with one woman harvesting enough vegetables that she no longer needed to shop at supermarkets. I’d like to introduce you to three of the urban gardeners I met that day:
Selling for the Community
Jeanette Ware had a table with a good selection of nice-looking produce – string beans, cucumbers, scallions, garlic, sweet onions – purple, white and yellow – and bins of collards and kale. At Hands and Heart, she and her husband, James, also grow mustard and turnip greens, ochre, carrots and lettuce. She sells her produce, she said, “for the community,” noting that fresh vegetables were hard to find by in East New York. People had to take buses to supermarkets and most of the produce there, she pointed out, “has chemicals.” Everything she had, she said with pride, was organic, grown with nothing but compost and rainwater.
I bought the kale – an oversized bunch that filled the bag – for $2. Jeanette was a good businesswoman, encouraging me to visit the market again and to take orders for my friends. Given the amount of kale I received, I probably would do just that on my next visit.
Jeanette told me how to get to Hands and Heart, a 15-minute walk from the market, where her husband was working. “He’ll show you where we picked everything,” she said.
No Kind of Cides
James, her husband, had just closed the gate to the ½-acre farm, when I arrived. I introduced myself. “I was hoping you could show me around,” I said. “I hope you’re not too busy.”
“No,” said James, who sounded and looked like Morgan Freeman, “I’m not too busy.”
James pointed to the two rows he and his wife planted. They were green and vibrant, packed with a rich mix of crops, from peppers to garlic and mustard greens. Two women a few rows over quietly tended their crops.
James and Jeannette were among the inaugural gardeners at Hands and Heart, which opened last year. They had a bountiful harvest, so much so that they decided to double what they planted, using all the space that was available to them. James was stunned, he said, when he learned that he made a little over $2,000 selling his crops at the market.
“Hopefully next time we doubled what we did last year,” he mused.
The prospect of extra cash is not what originally attracted James to the urban farm. He was simply looking for something to do, “not realizing that it was going to evolve into this,” said the soft-spoken retiree.
James, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, grew up on a farm and dabbled in farming as a kid but hated it. It wasn’t until years later that he began to enjoy it, and ever since he’s returned to his roots in farming at Hands and Heart he’s “happy, happy, happy.”
Like Jeanette, James prides himself that everything he and his wife grow is organic. “No pesticides, no insecticides,” he said with a pause, “no kind of cides.”
My Little Therapy
I met Joyce Dixon at United Community Centers Garden, where I was snatching photos for my blog. She told me not to take pictures of her two small plots, because she said they “don’t look too good,” not like the verdant rows of callaloo – a Jamaican vegetable in the spinach family – tended by another gardener.
Joyce hobbled about on her metal cane, using it to hold down overgrown plants and uncover hidden squash. She pulled a handful of purslane – a leaf vegetable – from her plot, and proudly showed it to me, explaining it can be cooked or used in salads. “It’s good for the memory,” she said.
Joyce, a longtime resident of East New York, grew up on a farm in Jamaica. She doesn’t spend nearly as much time as she once used to on her two plots. These days, she’s there just once a week. “It’s my little therapy,” she said. “It’s my passion.”
Entry filed under: City Farmers, Community Gardens, Farmers Market, Urban Agriculture. Tags: Add new tag, Brooklyn, City Farmers, city gardeners, Community Gardens, East New York, East New York Farms, Farmers Market, Hands and Heart Farm, United Community Centers Garden, Urban Agriculture, urban farmers, urban gardeners.