It is a warm day towards the end of March; the kind of day that turns your thoughts towards spring. In the Chase Near-East Side Legacy Center, Tyler and Laura Henderson are in the newly built 1,000 square foot greenhouse not just thinking about spring, but preparing for it. Long counters stretch along each wall and on one side, Tyler is compacting soil together to make small blocks for starting seeds and Laura hovers over a tray with 128 soil blocks on the other side with a hand full of tiny mustard seeds that she drops in one by one. Today the Hendersons are starting mustard plants, escarole and dandelion but they have actually been starting seeds for weeks now. Down the rest of the counters are tray after tray with sprigs of green in varying height levels. Tyler walks along to inspect the young plants and brushes his hand over the top of some three inch tall spiky onion plants as he passes. “In here, these plants are sort of babied,” Tyler explains. “Brushing over them like this simulates the wind they would experience outside and it helps toughen them up.”
Growing Places Indy is a non-profit started by Laura in 2009 that is dedicated to the development of urban agriculture to promote healthier lifestyles for urban communities. The phrase you will often see associated with them is Grow Well, Eat Well, Live Well and Be Well meaning “when we have access to food that is grown well; when we embrace a culture of eating well; when we are empowered within our community to live well; then we greatly enhance our capacity to be well.” Currently, Growing Places Indy manages three garden spaces: 2,500 square feet of raised beds at the Legacy Center, 2,200 square feet in a residential plot in the Cottage Home neighborhood, and 6,000 square feet at the Wishard Slow Food Garden at White River State Park.
Out at White River State park, just behind the bike and Segway rentals, there is a large patch of tangled clover you might not recognize as a garden plot. “The clover is a cover crop,” explains Tyler. Cover crops, sometimes called ‘green manure,’ are useful little plants to grow on a garden in between plantings. Cover crops help the soil by naturally preventing erosion, suppressing weeds, promoting biodiversity and adding nitrogen back into the soil. The clover has had the run of the garden for months, but now it is time to plant vegetables again. Tyler revs to life the motorized tiller and begins the work of turning the soil, tearing up the clover and preparing the plots for planting. “This is really the only gas-powered machine we use all year,” notes Tyler. The majority of the tools used by Growing Places Indy are human-powered and even most of the produce deliveries are done by bike.
This garden is called a slow food garden not just because you have to wait a long time for the food to grow. Slow Food is actually a world-wide organization dedicated to supporting sustainable food production and local food culture. Developed in 1986, Slow Food has grown to more than 100,000 members in 150 countries committed to the motto of Good, Clean and Fair. Good food is a high quality product full of flavor. Clean food is naturally produced and transported using methods that keep the health of people and the planet in mind. Fair food is priced well to support adequate treatment and compensation for workers and farmers. Indianapolis has had an active Slow Food chapter for several years now working to support farmers, artisan producers, markets and restaurants sourcing local food. They are the place to go to learn about what is Good, Clean and Fair in Indy.
The next day when the tilling is done, Laura walks through the plots measuring, pounding stakes into the ground and threading rope to mark out the different beds. Tyler has a binder with the master plan. Onions to the west, kale to the east. All the starts waiting at the Legacy Center have a place on the map. Other volunteers are working with rakes and stirrup hoes, a long handled tool with a flat length of metal shaped like a stirrup. The volunteers are combing through the beds, pulling out rocks and weeds. They mostly are working against the clover, but every once in while they come across a self-seeded radish, sweet-smelling cilantro or occasionally other objects buried in the soil like pens and a flip-flop. It is a warm day and so people are out walking through the White River State Park and many stop to watch curiously the team of gardeners back-dropped with the Indianapolis skyline.
Urban agriculture is actually an old idea, traceable back to ancient Egypt if you like, but it is becoming a new idea again in the United States. Various coastal cities like Seattle and New York have been driving home an urban agriculture movement for years in an effort to make more fresh food available to growing urban populations. Currently, over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities and that percentage is expected to rise dramatically over the next thirty years. Feeding these people is already becoming a huge issue. Much of the urban poor are obese and nutritionally deficient due to lack of access to fresh foods. Urban agriculture is a way to improve food security in urban areas and combat food deserts, areas without access to fresh produce.
April Hammerand, Project Manager at the Food Coalition of Central Indiana, is very concerned about the ideas of food justice and access to food in Indianapolis. She has spent many hours studying Indianapolis neighborhoods with limited food availability. “We are raising kids who don’t have access to fresh vegetables,” says April. “They are not going to know what fresh vegetables taste like and that they can taste good.” The Food Coalition exists to help connect communities with organizations and opportunities surrounding local food. The Coalition is also currently drafting a Food Charter they hope will eventually be adopted by the city of Indianapolis to help guide decisions and policies regarding food issues. “We need to be thinking about the health of people who can’t afford to be healthy,” says April. “We want it to be easy to find good, local food.”
On planting day at the White River State Park, Laura and Tyler load of the back of their pickup truck with flat upon flat of seed starts from the greenhouse. Tyler walks along the garden rows first with a shovel and quickly digs out holes while Laura follows behind gently tossing the small plants into their places. The Hendersons’ dog, named Maybe, “as in maybe I will let you pet me and maybe I won’t,” Laura explains, also follows along down the row, sticking close to her people and sniffing the occasional plant for good measure. Today they are planting several varieties of onions, scallions, and leeks as well as some kale, collards and other spring greens. Growing Places Indy will grow more than sixty varieties of fruit, vegetables and herbs this summer.
In April, the plants have only been in the ground for a few weeks when unpredictable Indiana weather strikes. Despite our warm March, last night’s temperatures dropped suddenly and left frost over everything. Tyler is out early this morning walking the rows, inspecting the vegetables. “They are fine,” he says with a little disbelief. “I thought this weather would shock them, but they look fine.” Assured that his other plants are fine, Tyler turns his attention to a yet empty bed. Indiana soil is full of clay and so the top of the beds dry out and harden quickly, but once you break through the top crusty layer, the soil underneath is moist and loose. Tyler uses a stirrup hoe to break into the beds and turn the soil. Working quickly, sweat breaks out on his brow as he churns the dirt from one end of the bed to the other. After the hoeing is done, Tyler goes back over the ground with a rake to make the bed as flat as possible. Not every plant in the garden starts life in the greenhouse and Tyler is going to use a tool called a wheel-seeder to plant turnip seeds today. The wheel-seeder works best on flat ground without bumps to jostle it.
Growing Places Indy sustains its existence as a non-profit by selling what it produces. The first way they do this is through CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. Buying a CSA is like buying a subscription to the garden. Members pay a fee up front and receive fresh vegetables on a weekly basis throughout the growing season, around 20 weeks long. Not everyone is able or willing to commit to so much produce and so Growing Places also offers a shorter, 10-week Veggie Share program. In addition to the CSA’s, Growing Places sells their produce at a Farm Stand at the Legacy Center, the Indy Winter Farmer’s Market and to local restaurants who want to serve fresh, in-season local food. Growing Places regularly supplies vegetables to Black Market, Bluebeard, Fermenti Artisan, Libertine, Napolese, Natural Born Juicers and R Bistro.
Planting never really ends at the garden. As spring plants are harvested, the space is then planted with summer vegetables and eventually fall vegetables. This process allows the garden to produce continually from late April through to October. Weeding and fertilizing are other jobs that never end. This morning Tyler is checking the large compost bins on the south end of the garden to see how close they are to being ready to use. Across the way, workers are on large industrial mowers to cut the grass of the Park and a faint chemical smell hangs in the air. “Do you smell that?” Tyler asks with a grimace. “It’s Round Up. They spray it over the whole place. It’s just stupid, isn’t it? I mean, kids play on that grass.” Growing Places Indy combats their weeds through more natural means such as mulching and good old hand weeding. They fertilize the plants and enrich the soil with products like compost, worm castings and blood meal. Becoming certified organic by the USDA is a time-consuming and costly process for small farms and even though Growing Places Indy does not hold that certification, they hold standards to their farm they consider “beyond organic.” “We never use chemical fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides on our farm, as we believe healthy soil yields healthy plants, which in turn yield healthy people and communities. We would never jeopardize this for short-term gains or convenience.”
Matthew Jose is the owner and creator of Big City Farms, Indy’s biggest (and one of the few) for-profit urban farming operations with just over an acre of land comprised of formerly abandoned lots scattered across the city. In his opinion, most people don’t think critically enough about their food. “People need to look at their food and ask, ‘What is this food going to give me?’” says Matthew. Will it be delicious and give me full flavor? Will it give me nutrients, satisfaction, energy? Most people don’t ask these questions and most of the food available for mass consumption doesn’t deliver these things. Industrial crops have been bred for uniformity, not flavor. Much of the produce on the supermarket shelves were picked too early, ripened falsely while it was trucked cross country and losing nutrients by the day. The average American meal has traveled 1,500 miles to get to the table, racking up fuel costs and pollution along the way. “Food choices are part of this really complex web,” says Matthew. “There are ramifications for each choice.”
CSA pick-ups are Wednesday evenings at White River State Park. This Wednesday, the garden is full with Tyler, Laura and their summer apprentices working among the beds. A pair of apprentices is leaning over the kale, pulling off and gathering the large leaves. Another is searching through the tomatillo plants to see what is ripe this week. Under the willow trees, Tyler has set up two large tubs of cold water where one person is dunking the greens partially to rinse them and partially because the cold water discourages the large leafed vegetables from wilting. The rest of the workers are scattered weeding, mulching and generally caring for the garden. Maybe wanders between rows, sniffing, and overseeing the work while the occasional canal walker stops to try and pet her. The CSA members begin to arrive for their weekly box. Tyler and Laura greet them each by name and many will stop and chat. They chat about work, the garden, new recipes they’ve learned and ask advice on how to prepare the beets in this week’s box.
Food is meant to be a social thing. In a world of big box grocery stories, it is easy to lose the closeness we are supposed to have with our food and our community through food. For those of us raised on modern convenience, getting into the local food scene can seem foreign and intimidating. Fortunately there are plenty of resources out there to help. Victoria Wesseler, Indiana gardener, writer and Lebanon native, runs a terrific blog called Going Local that is packed with resources, recipes and guides. According to Victoria, some of the most important reasons to eat local are to help your health, help the economy and just because it tastes better. And don’t think if you decide to start eating local food, you can never shop at a traditional grocery store again. “Start small,” suggests Victoria. “Do what you can, when you can, with what you can. Maybe just pick one local thing a month to try and go from there.” There are all sorts of ways to get connected with local food (CSAs, community gardens, delivered to your door) but one of the simplest is to go to your local farmer’s market. “Going to a farmer’s market is like going on an adventure. Have fun with it,” says Victoria. Unlike a traditional store where everyone has a cart and avoids eye contact, farmer’s markets are full of people lingering and comparing vegetables, chatting with each other, questing for the juiciest tomato and united by a love of quality food. A farmer’s market gives you the opportunity to talk with the farmers and find out about the produce you are buying. Ask them questions about where their farm is and what sorts of methods they used to grow the produce. “The farmers doing it right will love these questions,” says Victoria.
Tyler is kneeling between the beds, digging out holes for some more transplants going in the ground today. Suddenly he leaps up, fist held in the air. “Woo! This just doubled my hourly wage,” he shouts, smiling with a dirt-smudged quarter held in his hand. “I love finding money in the ground. I don’t care if it’s a penny or a hundred dollar bill; I like the idea that there are things everywhere, in the dirt, that have no value until they’re found.” Tyler pockets the quarter and bends back down to finish digging the row.
A chill is coming into the air as summer winds down and the garden begins to wind down with it. Strawberries and tomatoes are sweet memories and there are only a few collard greens left to pick. But the kohlrabi is coming along nicely and fall lettuce and escarole are newly planted in the ground. The garden will keep producing for a little while longer this year, but soon it will be time to clear the beds, scatter the clover seeds and leave the garden to rest. Winter will come lay blankets of snow and only when spring returns to take them away will it be time to wake the garden again and start back to work for another summer’s worth of treasures from the ground.