With the forecast calling for rain, Lisa Taranto kicks her standard double-time pace up to triple. The rain will be good for the flowers, fruits and vegetables that she and a band of part-time workers and volunteers are frantically plugging into the soil of a recently cleared half-acre lot just south of the Manchester Bridge.
The group's transforming this spot at Ninth and Bainbridge streets into the 9th and B Urban Farm. Hopes are high that enough of the bounty will bloom in time for the June 1 opening of the fruit stand on the site, planned to be open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Taranto, 43, is a whirlwind of activity. She divides chunks of monkey grass with a box cutter before scrambling across the lot to oversee a fallen branch operation. She hustles back to the front where she demonstrates how to loosen soil with a pickax for an office job refugee, playing hooky to volunteer.
A Virginia Tech-trained architect, Taranto launched the nonprofit Tricycle Gardens in 2002. The organization has helped build and run four community gardens in the East End, Carver and the Fan where folks pay a small annual fee to cultivate their own crops. They also work with three different community service groups to plant learning gardens, where children in the various programs help maintain plots in Fulton, Winchester Greens in Chesterfield County, and at the Peter Paul Development Center in Church Hill.
The Bainbridge garden will be the largest, but it will run differently than its sister gardens. Taranto oversees the growing here, essentially a minifarm, to demonstrate the volume a half-acre can produce — in pounds and dollars.
Other cities have caught onto the urban farm craze; The Associated Press reported 10 years ago that San Franciscans had pulled more than $2 million in commercial crops out of the city proper. But for Richmond this will be a first.
Taranto evangelizes the urban farm as a solution to a complex tangle of social problems. “We've set up a food system which has made a handful of corporations extremely wealthy while causing a crisis” everywhere else, she says. Advocates say that shortening the distance food must travel from grower to consumer helps alleviate global warming. They also hope for other results: Bringing fruits and vegetables into lower-income pockets where produce-heavy supermarkets are scarce could reduce diabetes and obesity. Turning vacant lots into gardens will boost property values. Taranto also says that training urban farmers will help with job development and potentially spur a new market sector, and that a public activity dripping with so much good juju will inevitably benefit community building.
At the Bainbridge garden, raspberries have been planted that will grow into a living fence along both street-facing edges of the property. Inside, an entire produce section of tomatoes, onions, eggplants, herbs, peppers, fennel, celery, corn, cucumbers, beans — and on and on — have been planted.
Along with the growing, Taranto has a composting operation on the plot. Staffers collect organic waste from businesses including the Urban Farm House in Shockoe Slip, Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream on the South Side and Savor, a cafe in Manchester. Legend Brewing Co., a neighbor just a few blocks west, already contributes mash from its brewery, but as a special feature on the northwest corner of the plot, Taranto has installed a trellis for hops, a key ingredient in beer, to climb up. If the plants can yield nine pounds of hops, Legend has agreed to brew a special garden batch.
Last week Mayor Dwight Jones made a visit to the garden. Taranto has been working with city officials to make it easier for other folks to get their own urban farms up and running. They're knocking around ideas like making surplus land more readily available, detailing design guidelines and solving the problem of how to get access to water. Taranto hopes her lot will be in bloom as a model for others to follow.
“Grass-roots is great,” she says, “but to create the kind of systemic change we need, policy has to be involved.”