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Farming and the Local Food Scene: Transforming a Vacant City Lot to Produce Food

Before clearing—what we're up against

How do you approach a completely overgrown, vacant city lot that you would like to use to grow food? How do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece. My partner and I have recently purchased a vacant lot behind our house in downtown Durham. We’d love to use the space, which is nearly a quarter of an acre, to establish a space for growing food. As of yet, we’re thinking about establishing a fruit and nut forest. We invited a group of friends and family over this past weekend to help start the initial, daunting process of clearing the years of English Ivy, wisteria, and young-growth trees from the land.

We started with three people. We had no working chainsaw. With a bow saw, some loppers, and Neil Young playing in the background, I kept thinking to myself that we must be crazy. Then, a group of reinforcements came with two working chainsaws—a pivotal turning point. It took me seconds with a chainsaw to saw down a tree that would have taken me at least twenty minutes to fell with a bow saw. My partner remarked that this must be how deforestation occurs (obviously with larger machinery). We contemplated taking down so many small trees; my five-year-old nephew was extremely worried about what we were going to do with all the wood—he insisted that we recycle it. Ideally, we’d like to rent a wood chipper to break down the trees into mulch that we can use for the land. Until then, we’re chopping the trees into smaller pieces and moving it alongside the street until it’s all cleared out.

It’s rather anthropocentric to think that we’re turning our lot into a space that will be better utilized and more valuable. The young growth trees, while deemed unworthy by myself, serve as carbon sinks, habitats for a range of species, as well as providing other ecosystem services. However, our proposed fruit and nut forest will provide food for my partner and I, our community, and surely other animals. The land will be cared for in a way that it hasn’t in decades. We’ll remove all of the mattresses, beer bottles, tires, and other trash and try to reuse as many of these objects as possible.

My goal is to finish clearing the land in time for a fall planting. Starting now gives me the time to finish the clearing, pull out the stumps and ivy, test the soil quality, and design the area so we can best utilize the space. As far as we can tell there hasn’t ever been a permanent structure on the land, which along with the incredibly lush weeds is a good general sign that the soil is relatively healthy.

I’m incredibly excited about the potential of this plot, and am looking forward to working with others in every step of the process to create an area that will be more useful for our community and ecosystem.


Laura Stephenson is an environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she focused in environmental and community health. She is currently working full-time at a small, organic farm outside of Hillsborough, North Carolina called Maple Spring Gardens. Laura writes the Farming and the Local Food Scene series about her experiences with local farms and farmers around the Piedmont area of North Carolina.

Posted on: July 17, 2012, 12:44 pm Category: Farming and the Local Food Scene Tagged with: , ,

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