Providence’s “Sidewalk Ends Farm” Brings Back Urban Soil

Farmer Tess Brown-Lavoie talks about compost and soil remediation at a CRAFT workshop. Attendees enjoyed a tour of the ‘greens factory’ and learned how to grow a never-ending supply of salad and arugula through biointensive production and succession planting.

Farmer Tess Brown-Lavoie talks about compost and soil remediation at a CRAFT workshop. Attendees enjoyed a tour of the ‘greens factory’ and learned how to grow a never-ending
supply of salad and arugula through biointensive production and succession planting.

Three young women turned their love of gardening into a thriving farm business. After college Fay Strongin, and sisters Laura Brown-Lavoie and Tess Brown-Lavoie, did not seek desk jobs but instead decided to start farming on an abandoned lot just minutes from busy downtown Providence, in Rhode Island.

The future farmers searched every side street in ever-increasing circles, seeking an open lot. They researched lot ownerships at city hall and reached out to landowners. “It took a lot of detective work and repeated efforts to connect with the owner of the abandoned lot on Harrison Street that became Sidewalk Ends Farm,” Tess said. The three sought a written multiyear lease, but faced communication challenges with the landowner. The farm team eventually secured verbal permission from the lot owner to farm the land for a year.

Harrison Street neighbors said there had been a rundown house at number 47 until it was torn down in the 1970s. Invasive vines and brush had completely taken over the lot. As the team began clearing away the brush, they found building debris, concrete and rubble in the cellar hole. Like many abandoned lots, this one had become the neighborhood’s dumping ground. The farmers found bottles and broken glass near every fence line.

Ever the optimist, Laura was confident the neighbors would stop dumping trash over the fence once they saw the land producing food.

City Farming Concerns

Tess Brown-Lavoie, Fay Strongin and Laura Brown-Lavoie at  Sidewalk Ends Farm in Providence, RI with their latest salad plantings

Tess Brown-Lavoie, Fay Strongin and Laura Brown-Lavoie at
Sidewalk Ends Farm in Providence, RI with their latest salad plantings

Suspecting the Harrison Street lot soils might contain toxins, heavy metals or lead, the farmers conducted thorough soil tests before beginning site preparations in September 2011. The front of their chosen lot had building debris from the original house — including lead paint chips. To mitigate risks, Tess said the team shoveled and carried all the “OK” topsoil from the back of the property to cap or cover the tainted soil at the front. Soil test results after moving the soil were in the acceptable range for growing food and raising animals.

As an added protection, the farm team installed thick layers of bedding over a liner before setting up a brightly colored chicken pen near the front fence for everyone to see. When refreshed, the used bedding helps feed the active compost pile. The chickens enjoy eating excess farm vegetables.

A series of raised beds were constructed from gleaned lumber and wood scraps, used pallets and other recycled materials. These beds were filled with 8” – 10” of fresh soil and rich compost before planting with shallow-rooted annual herbs. The farm’s Portable Wash Station doubles as a CSA pick-up station. It is located near the front fence and water supply. The lot front also contains a fire circle and woodchip-covered gathering area.

To protect nearby children from possible soil-born lead dust, woodchips cover all soil surfaces in the lot front.

Some deep-rooted crops accumulate minerals from well below the soil surface and can offer excellent nutrition. If grown in tainted soils, however, they can accumulate toxins. To minimize risks, Sidewalk Ends Farm grows shallow-rooted, short-season crops like salad greens and annual herbs.

Compost & Organic Matter

The first fall the three farmers splurged on truckloads of high quality compost from Smithfield Peat <www.smithfieldpeat.com>. Additional material was gathered and added all winter long (leaves, coffee grounds, etc.) and blended with a broad fork in the spring before the seeds and transplants went in. Since then, the farmers have produced and used their own compost from a variety of local inputs. Farmers collect food scraps from their CSA customers, local restaurants and coffee shops.

Taking advantage of urban closeness, these farmers encourage their neighbors to add to the farm’s active compost pile. Fun, informative signs help remind families how to compost. Fay said: “Composting helped us connect with our neighbors even more than growing food.” The neighbors now have an excuse to visit the farm regularly. Their random evening visits minimize potential theft. Neighbors are happy to reduce their trash hauling needs and to see their kitchen scraps recycled into next year’s salads.

“The farm neighbors get composting. We have a network of fertility,” said Tess when she described a recent bike trip where a driver pulled over and tossed her banana peel into Tess’s bike cart of food waste.

Fay is very enthusiastic about her farm-made compost. She said, “Compost is the key to our soil fertility because the only time this land is fallow is when it is frozen!”

Old carpet squares and flattened cardboard boxes marked paths at first. Now shredded leaves and burlap coffee sacks gleaned from a nearby café keep weeds down between rows of salad greens at the back of the lot.

The farmers repeat their soil tests annually and are happy to report the organic matter keeps rising. Sidewalk Ends Farm’s lead and heavy metals levels continue dropping towards undetectable levels.

Organics & Carbon Footprint

The Cranston Armory Farmers Market at the corner of Parade and Hudson Streets is just two blocks away from Sidewalk Ends Farm. CSA members pick up their shares at the farm. The farmers use bikes with trailers to deliver produce or collect food waste.

Adding organic matter increases carbon in the soil. Biking and selling locally has decreased food transportation miles and further lowering carbon dioxide emissions while increasing local food security.

Water Challenges

When the house at 47 Harrison Street was demolished in the 1970s, city water pipes were disconnected. Hooking up city water without a building proved too challenging, so the Sidewalk Ends Farm crew developed a creative solution with their neighbors. Hoses connected to neighboring buildings provide irrigation and wash water in return for a weekly CSA share (spring – fall) and a weekly loaf of fresh bread (winter months).

Urban Setting

No one says it is too quiet or boring at Sidewalk Ends Farm. Regular drive-by and open window “concerts” keep things lively. The herbs, flowers and greens seem to thrive with neighborhood music.

The farmers named their chickens for their favorite musicians, radio hosts and writers: Aretha, Berry, Goodman & Gonzales and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Sidewalk Ends Farm has brought back 1950s-style neighborhood closeness. People routinely lean over the fence and chat with their neighborhood farmers and each other. The chickens are very social and they love attention from visitors.

Land Security

In 2013, the three farmers used online crowd sourcing to raise just about enough money to buy the property when it came up for a tax auction. The landowner came in at the last possible minute and paid the back taxes owed. The farmers continue their negotiations with the landowner. For now, they have an agreement to farm there next year. A lot of effort has gone into making this site viable and safe to farm. Should these farmers have to move, the safe, fertile soil would remain.

Planning well, the farmers planted herbs and flowers in portable, repurposed containers like milk crates, 5-gallon pails and olive drums. Perennials and deep-rooted herbs thrive in these tall containers with site-made compost and have no risk of absorbing possible soil contaminants.

Goals & Results

To keep this farm viable, every inch of growing space needs to deliver two to three crops per year. The back lot uses bio-intensive planting patterns of tight, staggered rows to increase outputs in small spaces. As soon as a crop is harvested, any crop residue is quickly moved to the active compost pile. That same day, 1” to 2” of finished compost is spread and forked into the bed to provide organic matter and fertility. New seeds or transplants are then installed. Soils do not sit bare and exposed to wind or erosion.

Since 2011 Sidewalk Ends Farm has supplied greens and produce to a 20-member CSA and restaurants through the Little City Growers Co-Op <www.farmfresh.org/food/member.php?fn=272>. Their CSA shares are comparable to half shares from other farms; this fits the needs of city dwellers with their small kitchens, refrigerators and families.


The workshop was followed by a Young Farmer Nights  potluck supper and storytelling around a fire.

The workshop was followed by a Young Farmer Nights 
potluck supper and storytelling around a fire.

Sidewalk Ends Farm covered or capped their urban soils with fertile compost and clean soils. By selecting shallow-rooted crops, they grow safe, healthy foods for themselves and their CSA customers. By placing a liner under their chicken pen, they protect the chickens from scratching too deep.

Larger farms may not have the financial resources to move or replace soils on a big scale. Another soil treatment option is to use accumulator plants for phytoremediation. Growing specific plants on tainted land can help cleanse soils for future agricultural use. Various plants and microorganisms can degrade, tie up or even remove toxins from the soil.

Some plants can accumulate heavy metals like arsenic (sunflower and Chinese brake fern), cadmium (willow), common salt (sugar beet and barley) and radioactive elements (sunflowers). Other transgenic plants and microorganisms target mercury, selenium, petroleum and PCBs.

High levels of soil organic matter help tie up many heavy metals, making them unavailable to plants, preventing leaching and reducing toxic dust.

Toxic dust becomes airborne when soils are disturbed during removal and hauling. Bare infertile subsoil remains. Onsite treatment significantly reduces costs and the carbon footprint of hauling contaminated soils to hazardous waste facilities. In situ treatment significantly reduces exposure risks to neighboring children. Phytoremediation and urban agriculture can also prevent toxins from blowing or leaching onto surrounding properties or into ground water aquifers.

Plant Selection

According to “The Use of Plants for the Removal of Toxic Metals from Contaminated Soil” by Mitch Lasat, root exudates and symbiotic microorganisms help plant roots tolerate and absorb metals. Soil toxicity levels will affect typical plant biomass. High biomass crops create higher disposal costs. Lasat recommended site managers select plants with root system depths that match the depth of soil contamination.

Lasat reported that some species of maize tolerate and absorb high levels of Cadmium (Cd) but cannot tolerate high levels of Zinc (Zn). Maize and Indian mustard (Brassica juncea) show some promise for extracting Lead (Pb) from soils when synthetic chelates are applied after normal biomass levels are reached. According to Lasat, moderate Lead accumulators include Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis), common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), nodding thistle (Carduus nutans) and hemp dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum).

Lasat suggested acidic soils allow greater metals uptake. Caution is required as soluble lead can quickly leach below root zones. After plants remove sufficient metals, lime can be applied in preparation for new plantings. Early lime applications could tie up remaining metals and prevent further phytoremediation. Lasat reported that phosphorus could increase biomass but inhibit metals uptake, particularly lead.

Phytoremediation crops should be rotated and planted with modest spacing for highest effectiveness, according to Lasat.

If plants are grown directly in known toxic soils, the plants should not be eaten. After the plants have absorbed or tied up toxins, the plant biomass should be removed to a hazardous waste facility.

Lasat reported that some or all of the cost of hauling away toxic biomass might be recouped by recovering certain valuable metals like Copper, Nickel and Zinc. These metals may be captured (at licensed “phyto mining” facilities) through burning the biomass.

Some phytoremediation projects may take as long as 15 years to clean up soil. So far, most studies have been short term. Lasat recommended additional research be conducted on spacing, soil fertility amendments and metals recovery processes and opportunities.

To learn more about Sidewalk Ends Farm, see their Facebook page <www.facebook.com/pages/Sidewalk-Ends-Farm/213101742058011> or Sidewalk Ends Farm <www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=3209> website. To arrange a visit to Sidewalk Ends Farm at 47 Harrison St, Providence, RI, email <laura.brown.lavoie@gmail.com> or call 617-817-6598.