Urban Oasis Helps Feed, Beautify Communities

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Photos and text by DAN PENENGO/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Nestled between West Clifford and Providence streets, alongside Dudley Street in a humble urban setting, is City Farm, a brimming oasis of fertile and manicured beds of savory greens and nutrient-rich compost. A mile west of the Providence River and a few blocks back from Rhode Island Hospital’s many parking areas, deserted lots now thrive with active volunteers, guests, and plant enthusiasts.

Making my way on a pleasant and airy Sunday morning, a Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) membership card in hand and a kindled curiosity for what I would find, I reached my destination. Touted as the 26th annual Rare & Unusual Plant Sale, I hugged the tires up to the curb on Dudley Street up past the Davey Lopes Recreation Center, and ventured over and around the fence toward the gothic arch of the greenhouse. Following my senses, I connected to the whispering wind on the garlic leaves, shared a warm greeting with a smiling volunteer and entered.

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The rare and unusual plant sale was spot on. I was able to score varieties of plants I had not seen around or even in catalogs — from lentil bean, flax, Moldavian balm, sesame, hemp, garbanzo, and peanut to uniquely diverse squash and tomato varieties. Yet, the real treat wasn't so much the physical plants I would depart with, more so, the vibing ambiance.

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As I overheard important conversations of guests and volunteers discussing soil amendments, local artists were plucking their guitar strings ready to stir their sounds with the pitch of the robin and the rustle of the lettuce leaves in the cool breeze.

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During my short visit, I was at ease in the farm's crafty and thoughtful layout. Specific areas were well marked, leading the novice toward the culinary or medicinal herbs, shade or sun perennials, and of course the vegetables and tomatoes. The well-groomed and trodden paths offered plenty of shade and areas to take pause and reflect on the transcendent feel of the place.

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I was sure to look around for Rich Pederson, City Farm steward, to see if I might steal a second from him. Sauntering by with a handful of glorious plants in tow, I asked if he minded I write a piece on the event and take photos of the place and people. Looking back with a serene smile and open arms, he offered, “it’s an extended family here at City Farm.”

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In bold print on the SCLT website, the nonprofit's statement is clear: “SCLT programs, community gardens and farms serve people in urban neighborhoods where fresh produce is nearly impossible to find — especially in quantities and at prices that support residents’ health.”

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As you look out past the tables of the plant sale, you can see the many beds of lettuce, peas, garlic, parsley and other leafy greens stretching into the urban landscape, to where the heart of the farm’s purpose extends.

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Urban food deserts affect many Americans, and groups such as SCLT are willfully engaging the community and having an impact. SCLT owns or supports 52 community gardens and seven farms in Greater Providence, and continues to assist new farmers in renovating abandoned urban parcels into thriving green spaces.

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During a contemplative and slow drive back to a more rural setting, my eyes adjusted again to the concrete roads and buildings, though they couldn't help but to envision every bit of lawn transform into a harvestable food source.

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Reaching home, I landed my feet in my own small garden and set the unusual and rare plants into the ground, hopeful for a fruitful summer, knowing well where my next volunteer venture would take me, back to City Farm.