For years, the only plants that grew in the polluted gardens of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on West 125th Street were some scattered shrubs, trees, and flowers.
Today, Billy Adams, the gardener for St. Mary’s, can barely recite every flora inhabiting the church’s small plot of land.
There are carrots, snap peas, strawberries, beets, arugula, grapes, and eggplants. There are herbs and flowers, some of which adorn the garden with unclear purpose. There is even catnip, which was planted by a volunteer who never returned for it—the plant may end up going to a local stray cat that roams the churchyard.
“The chard is good,” Adams said. “Lots of lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries.” He notes with delight the tomatoes, which get the most sunlight and are flourishing.
St. Mary’s Urban Farm, as the garden is now called, signals a trend of religious institutions embracing the local food movement. The garden’s 28 soil beds are mostly supported by volunteers, including Columbia students and members from an Occupy Wall Street contingent in Harlem.
In February, after receiving funds from United Way Seed Grant, a program that supports sustainable urban farms, the land at St. Mary’s was retooled to grow and harvest food for needy local families by supplementing the church’s food pantry.
Claire West, a third-year Master of Divinity graduate student at Union Theological Seminary, was already tending UTS’s own urban paradise, the Edible Churchyard, when she was picked to be a coordinator for St. Mary’s garden.
The bounty produced by the Edible Churchyard and a second rooftop garden go to students, not locals, but the two farms share similar philosophies about food. Every Wednesday, vegetables from the Edible Churchyard go into a collaborative “stone soup” that is shared with the UTS community.
“Food is biblical, for sure,” laughs West. “There are a lot of agricultural metaphors.”
St. Mary’s Urban Farm faced serious ecological impediments at its onset. Soil testing initiatives led to the discovery that the soil surrounding the church was seriously contaminated with incredibly high concentrations of metals—lead, cadmium, and mercury. Both Adams and West believe that a local paint factory and a leakage from an underground oil tank may have contributed to the lead content.
“It’s always a challenge to start a garden in a space that hasn’t been used for gardening,” West said.
Today, the urban farm combats more traditional pests like mold, caterpillars, and squirrels. The critters would constantly dig into the soil to bury nuts, unintentionally ruining the church’s food bounty in the effort to store their own.
The garden has a powerful effect on all those who visit it, said Christine Lee, a transitional minister at St. Mary’s. She recalled when a group of local elementary school students came to the urban farm to release some butterflies they had raised in their classroom.
The urban garden gave the children “a real sense of pride. Who could have thought you could teach farming skills in Harlem?” Lee said.
The church has formed a committee to consider expanding the farm’s reach. Shakoor Aljuwani, the committee’s chair, said that converting the farm to a co-op has the potential to allow the farm to “build and multiply.” He envisions the farm as more than a supplement to the church’s food pantry, but perhaps as a nonprofit that could provide educational farming workshops to locals.
Aljuwani would like to work with the West Harlem Development Corporation—the organization distributing Columbia’s Community Benefits Agreement—to fund the farm’s growth. “We’re learning about what cooperatives are and how it fits into the different types of ways of organization that we can explore,” he said.
The church has limited property, but Adams is hopeful about continued local interest in food self-enterprise. He thinks that the rooftops of an elementary school adjacent to St. Mary’s, separated from the church by only a fence and a playground, could make for a good new green space.
“The kids could learn to garden and help raise the plants,” Adams said. “Eat the vegetables they grow or sell them to restaurants.”