City Gardeners Grow for Themselves and Others

July 12, 2008 at 2:12 am 6 comments

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



United Community Centers Garden is part of a coalition of gardens that makes up East New York Farms! in Brooklyn.

United Community Centers Garden is part of a coalition of gardens that makes up East New York Farms! in Brooklyn.

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 Ware, a gardener at Hands and Heart Farm, prides himself in growing organic produce.

James Ware, a gardener at Hands and Heart Farm, prides himself in growing organic produce.

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 Dixon sees vegetable gardening as “her little therapy.”

Joyce Dixon sees vegetable gardening as “her little therapy.”

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: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Back to Green Acres? Too Much of a Good Thing

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Roxanne Christensen  |  July 12, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    As the co-author of SPIN-Farming, what I see every day are more and more entrepreneurs throughout the U.S. and Canada using SPIN’s franchise-ready system as an entry point into the farming profession. They are using front lawns and backyards and neighborhood lots as their land base. Developed by Canadian farmer Wally Satzewich, SPIN is a franchise-ready vegetable farming system that makes it possible to earn significant income from growing vegetables on land bases under an acre in size. SPIN farmers utilize relay cropping to increase yield and achieve good economic returns by growing only the most profitable food crops tailored to local markets. SPIN’s growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you’d expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn’t any different from McDonalds. By offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them, and it removes the two big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and significant start-up capital. This is recasting farming as a small business in cities and towns, “right sizing” agriculture for an urbanized century and helping to make local food production a viable business proposition once again.

  • 2. mcorreia  |  July 14, 2008 at 1:54 am

    This is fascinating. What a marvelous re-imagining of the world of farming. I can see the emergence of a whole new generation of DYI farmers. Thanks for bringing this great new concept to my attention.

  • […] feed five people for a year, using canning and other storing techniques.  His claim jibes with a comment from a visitor to this blog who describes a vegetable farming system that makes it possible for […]

  • 4. William Zaffer  |  November 29, 2008 at 5:01 am

    I saw on PBS on the Bill Moyer Journal about the Hands and Heart Farm. I for years have organic gardened and started a community garden in Tucson. People must unite and start their own gardens to take control and cook at home and not eat at fast food outlets if we want to truly deal with climate change. We also must demand that we have a real farm bill not an agri- business farm bill that gives subsides to push crap to us and our children. Take control.

  • 5. Apartment Garden « LoCali Fed: Urban Rehab  |  March 2, 2009 at 12:28 am

    […] with Michael Pollan drew attention to the Hands and Heart Community Garden, (which is blogged about here). There, any one can rent plots of land in the East New York farm for a small fee. The community has […]

  • 6. Garden ROI « New York Bounty  |  August 18, 2009 at 1:23 am

    […] no one can argue the bounty — and pleasure — that comes from a simple seed.  Take urban farmer James Ware whom I interviewed last year (pictured above). He made more than $2,000 selling crops from two rows […]

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