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Photo by Collins Laatsch

Urban Farms: Not Just for Summer

Driving the downtown raceway–I mean 4th Street–I always make note of this pocket of growth in between the houses that watch the over the traffic. Over the summer, an adorable sun-shaped shelter/lending library went in and these days, while not verdant, there is still activity in this corridor of nature: mini-greenhouses hang out while people walk through holding hands with their kids, or playing with their dogs. A wooden sign at the entrance welcomes visitors to 4th Street Farms and the fence, accented by flags of all different colors, pronounces, “GIVE TIME, GET FOOD.”

Since I don’t believe that curiosity killed the cat (I believe it just made her fat), I sought out Evelyn Van Til, volunteer coordinator, to learn about this petite portion of providence.

What is the history of 4th Street Farms?

4th Street Farms began in late 2010, when the 6th Street Community Garden (operated by the Weinland Park Garden Club) ceded land to housing, and we got access to the land at 1377 N. 4th Street in April 2011. We began as four neighbors working together to transform a vacant lot. The lot originally had a beautiful old house, where an old lady lived. When she died, the house went vacant and unfortunately, like so many vacant houses, fell to arson. The vacant lot attracted crime and litter, part of a historically troubled Short North spot at 8th Ave & 4th Street, until our community transformed it into a vibrant garden.

How does the garden work? For example, if a neighbor needed some rosemary, could they just walk over there and pick some? 

Everyone is welcome. The “Give Time. Get Food!” sign in the garden invites everyone to take what they need and give back what they can. So, yes, if you want rosemary, mint, or kale, just harvest some. If you have compost, put it in Bin 1 and cover it with wood chips. If you want to pull weeds, start in the paths. If you want to add chips to the paths, there’s a pile in the back. If you want to turn compost bins over, there are tools available. If you want to plant something, join the Planning Potluck and let’s get seeds out when it’s time.

No one owns plots at 4th Street Farms. Instead, everyone harvests what they need and gives back what they can. The more you give back, the more you likely are aware of what is ready to harvest, but we also have a chalkboard at the front where we will write what plants are ready for harvest or leave notes to each other.

 Will there be cold weather plants available all season?

It is critical for city people to understand that farmers work all year round, planning and cultivating. Planting is not just for spring. Winter cover crops, like clover, help renew the soil. Managing and nourishing the soil takes time, knowledge and resources. Much of our space is dedicated to local fruit trees, berry bushes, and vines. We prune or cane out in the fall to help the fruits grow stronger next year. These fruits need winter– there are no apple, pears, or cherries without a winter appropriate for our growing zone, which is incidentally shifting warmer due to climate change. Bulb plants– like garlic– are similar to the fruit trees and will overwinter, growing and thriving to be ready next summer. Kale, collards, and cabbage will last until people harvest them. There’s radish and lettuce growing under mini-greenhouses, which will go through the winter. We hope to continue to extend the edible growing season as interest and resources permit.

What inspired 4th Street to get involved in the “library business”? 

Our mission at 4th Street Farms is to “Eat, Educate, Empower and Employ” skills in the community. We want to break bread with people, teaching and empowering people to employ their skills on their own mission in the community.  Books are a big piece of opening up worlds of possibility. So, this project also builds on our work in empowering people to grow their own food and choose their own paths.

Last summer we did a series of early literacy programs at 4th Street Farms in Weinland Park with A Good Start. We did “Weeds and Words,” “Books and Berries,” and others where we read a book and did a short activity, like pick berries or pull weeds, and enjoy a snack.

The Little Free Library, where there’s a little library onsite for people to sit in and read together, extended that program to something people could use 365/24/7 as they wish.

4th Street Farms in Weinland Park is 1/2 a block north of the Weinland Park Elementary School and the Schoenbaum Family Center for Early Learning and Community Programs, as well as the actual park in Weinland Park. Both the front and the alley of 4th Street Farms are high pedestrian areas with lots of kids. Our LFL has a naturally eye-catching design that draws people to seek it out.

How do people get involved?

We have an active calendar of volunteer dates throughout the year, and we’ll kick off 2017 with a 4th Street Farms Planning Potluck on Feb. 4, where we will review 2016 and invite ideas for the future. We participate each year in Earth Day, Weinland Park’s Roots & Roofs, Make a Difference Day, and many other service days, as well as hosting things like Jam Sessions, Book Clubs, Sewing Circles, and the Columbus Chicken Coop Tour.

There are 181 volunteers in the 4th Street Farms Volunteer Group, 996 people following our FB page, 892 followers on Twitter, and 346 followers on Instagram. There are many neighbors who run over to grab some herbs for dinner, to pick a few apples to make a pie, or to get berries for breakfast. There are local organizations like Mettler Toledo, Wexner Medical, and The Limited that participate in annual professional service days at 4th Street Farms. We have participated in Cowic’s Green Corp. job training program. We host interns from The Ohio State University and work with many clubs and organizations to engage them in community service events around Weinland Park.