Digging Dirt in the Metropolis - Three Providence Residents Reap the Bounty
Three Providence Residents Reap the Bounty
Urban gardeners are reclaiming Providence one plot at a time. Whether in their own backyard or a shared community garden, these growers are tied together by their love for the soil, their culture and a desire to improve the health of their neighborhood. We don’t always get an inside look into gardens behind fences but here we’ve entered the world of three Providence gardeners who create beauty and abundance in their small corner of Li’l Rhody’s capital city.
The Farmers’ Market Gardener
Originally from Laos and part of the Hmong people, Ploua Kang and her family discovered the Potters Avenue community garden more than 25 years ago and have been growing there ever since.
In the early years, the garden site was in need of a total overhaul, removing the junk and debris that gathered during the years the lot was vacant. Ploua and other community members did the work in exchange for plots, eventually turning the space into a thriving garden. Today the garden is managed by the Southside Community Land Trust and Ploua is one of their garden leaders.
Fresh ingredients like cilantro, scallions, mustard greens, peas and lemongrass feature prominently in the Hmong diet and those are what Ploua chooses to grow in abundance in her garden. Even after 40 years in America, she upholds the culinary traditions of her culture, strengthening the vitality of her community. According to Ploua, Hmong people eat two servings of mustard green soup and rice every day and so she keeps the ingredients coming fresh from the garden all season long.
A full-time nurse’s assistant, Ploua returns from work, changes her clothes and goes straight to her plot. This is her daily routine to decompress and check in on her plants. “Whatever free time I have, I spend it in the garden,” she says. “When everyone else goes to church, I go to the garden.”
Excess garden crops are what led Ploua to the Broad Street Farmers’ Market, where she is a regular vendor every Saturday (starting in July). She finds the market a way to cut down on waste and make a few dollars on the weekend. Regular customers come to see her week after week and are accustomed to the quality and variety of her produce. She enjoys the community this creates and plans to continue growing food as long as she is able.
The Community Gardener
Ali Mortezaie came to the United States from Iran as a refugee in 2012, and his garden was an important part of settling into a new life. During the resettlement process, he was connected with Southside Community Land Trust when he expressed interest in gardening as a hobby. He was introduced to the community garden on Brattle Street on the South Side of Providence and to a group of other refugee gardeners from different parts of the world. For Ali, this garden was one of his first places of connection in Providence.
As the season went on, the other gardeners noticed how productive Ali’s small plot was and looked to him for growing tips and techniques, like succession and companion planting. Today, Ali is the enthusiastic garden leader of the community garden, where he organizes the members and oversees community workdays and compost deliveries.
Ali grows a number of vegetables that are part of the Iranian diet that he cannot find in local markets. A particular mint variety that he cultivates (the seeds sent from his mother) is spicier than the mint Americans are used to and he grows a type of chive, more similar to a leek, which is featured in many Persian recipes. Because Ali has a hard time finding the tomato and eggplant varieties he likes most in local markets, he chooses to grow his own.
Not all crops in his garden come from Ali’s familiar Iranian culture. After discovering the current American obsession with kale, Ali became a quick adopter and he now eats it almost every day when it’s available. Ali follows the philosophy that food is medicine and he enjoys growing and eating for health and longevity.
The Accidental Gardener
In 2013, Karen Fuerherm brought home a Vizsla puppy named Jack. Jack’s relentless energy inspired her to purchase the small plot of land adjacent to her own backyard in Providence’s West End. In the beginning it was a place for Jack to run in circles and lie in the grass, but soon Karen began thinking about what else she could do with the land.
After testing the soil and finding high levels of lead, she constructed a large raised bed on top of a barren spot in the yard. Compost was hauled in and she spent her summer tinkering in the garden bed while Jack spent his time running around it.
Karen enrolled in a $50 beekeeping class with the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association, which set her on her way to a life of backyard beekeeping. The learning process has been slow but steady for Karen, relying on YouTube videos and shared knowledge from other urban beekeepers, including advice from Drake Patten, owner of the garden store cluck!. Her biggest challenge continues to be keeping the bees alive, a common problem when raising bees organically.
Karen currently has three hives and produces about 170 pounds of honey each year for her friends and family. This year she is experimenting with the Slow Hive, new honey technology from Australia that allows you to essentially tap the hive like a keg and cuts down on the labor of extracting honey.
“Every year I add a little something more as I get to know the space, what grows well and where—and what my habits are,” she says. She planted a small garden closer to the house dedicated to tomatoes and basil. Additional fruit trees will complete a nanoscale orchard, and smarter succession plantings allow her to cut down on waste each season.
“Over the last few years I’ve watched the health of my urban yard improve,” she says and explains that there are increasingly more birds and insects around her property. “I just want to leave this small space better than when I found it.”