South Jamaica Houses expands urban farm in trashed lot

By Sadef Ali Kully

Longtime residents of South Jamaica I Houses, along with NYCHA employees and New York Restoration Project volunteers, have expanded a small urban farm located in the housing complex. Marian Dolphus, 84, a resident of South Jamaica Houses since 1975, has been maintaining a small herb garden, flowers and plants around the NYCHA complex. But her small herb garden inside an overgrown lot was becoming harder to handle. She needed help to clear out the lot and add space for another garden. So she and the South Jamaica Houses gardening team looked for resources that could enlarge their urban farm and hit the jackpot as the 2014 Citywide Vegetable Garden Winner.

“It was the first time we asked for any kind of real help,” said Alexander Stanley, 79, a resident and secretary of the gardening group. “We saw the application online and just applied. We did not know anything about it. But it worked.”

The New York Restoration Project, founded by Bette Midler in 1995, is a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming open space in under-resourced communities. Its Gardens for the City program has a rolling application process for community gardens across the city.

NYRP lends materials, manpower and expertise in construction, horticulture, forestry and environmental education to help create community gardens and accessible landscapes in poorer neighborhoods.

Residents, NYCHA, City Force, New York Restoration Project and other volunteers arrived on a sunny day May 14 to clear out the disheveled lot so that they could build raised planting beds in the complex at 106-24 159th St.. They also shoveled in rich topsoil and compost in order to start planting by June 1.

“I love my collard greens. I also plant red and green okra, eggplant, squash and lots of herbs,” said Dolphus. “After this we wait for harvest time and pick the plants.”

Dolphus said now that the lot has been cleared out, her biggest worry would be keeping the pesky neighborhood squirrels away from her eggplants, “They love my eggplants,” she said.

Volunteers constructed 12 raised planting beds, 18 feet by 4 feet and 8 feet by 4 feet, picked up bags full of garbage, cleared yards of weeds and overgrowth, and got the space ready for planting season.

Once complete, the South Jamaica Houses resident gardeners will manage the plant selection, cultivation and upkeep, as well as the donation of surplus produce to neighbors in need.

“While the poster child for urban gardening may be a Brooklyn hipster, the trend is rapidly growing at low-income communities across the city, including NYCHA properties. These gardens act as agricultural hot spots, free social gathering spaces, and even outdoor classrooms for children,” said Amanda Brown, NYRP director of Community Engagement. “They also serve as a much-needed resting spot for people living in parts of the city where public parks are scarce. The end result is a community that’s stronger, safer and healthier.”

South Jamaica I Houses has 11 buildings, three and four stories tall with 440 apartments housing some 994 residents and South Jamaica II Houses consists of 16 buildings, three and seven stories tall with 598 apartments housing about 1,565 people.

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