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Urban Haven in Baltimore, Maryland

What is your spouses full name? My sincerest apologies, after two sleepless nights in New York and a long drive down to Georgia my mind is totally foggy. 

Jeff Arias 



Can you remind me of the name of the horse drawn vegetable cart operation behind your place? Can you tell me a bit more about their history in Baltimore? 

Baltimore Arabbers - here's a brief history about them. Here's a link to their facebook page. 



What is the name of your neighborhood?

Hollins Market, in Southwest Baltimore



Why did you choose this neighborhood? Was it just based on finding your home or did you choose it for other reasons as well?

Purely luck - I had started a new job at Hopkins and couldn't keep commuting from DC, so we were scrambling to find a place. We ended up putting an offer on the house without doing a whole lot of research and felt super super lucky that we ended up where we were - an affordable, relatively walkable neighborhood, with great neighbors, a really nice restaurant/bar, gardens, and a decent supermarket across the street. 



What is the name of the resale store that you sourced a lot of your materials to update your home?

Second Chance, and also the Re-Store, and The Loading Dock 

(Click here to jump to their interview)

Anchor 11

Did you grow up growing your own food, keep animals, etc. or was it something you came to on your own when you were older?

My mom always had a huge flower garden that she tends to, and my dad owns his own landscaping and tree service company, and as I get older I see that that has influenced me, although it's not ever something I seriously thought about until I got older and lived on my own. My spouse's extended family have always lived on farmland, and he had a small vegetable garden growing up.


What made you decide to build your urban homestead?

It was a natural part that grew out of buying our first house in Baltimore. There's a lot of freedom that came out of owning a house - really being able to personalize everything and make it really ours, although that did involve a lot of youtubing, making mistakes, and having a pretty "rustic" look. My spouse and I were on the same page about wanting to be as self-sufficient as we could be. Everything from using reclaimed wood to build our counters, floors, and chicken coop, to having raised beds and chickens, to putting in a wood-burning stove and rain barrel. 


How have your family/friends/community responded to your garden and chickens?

Really positively! Luckily a few of our neighbors also had chickens, and there's so many vacant lots in the area that urban gardening projects have always been around. When we had chickens in the community garden, the neighborhood kids loved to visit them. My family also loves it - in Guatemala, my mom grew up tending a few chickens, some cows, and a big corn patch, so she's very supportive of having a self-sufficient homestead. 


What has been the hardest part of your journey thus far? What has been the most rewarding?

Dealing with the limited space and challenges of growing in an urban area - we have to rely mostly on raised beds, due to lead in the soil, and we have to be creative with water access. We're also pretty busy, as I'm working full-time and my spouse in nursing school, so we have a list of projects that seem never ending! I would love to work full-time on a farm for a year to really develop those skills, but the timing won't be right for another few years from now. The most rewarding has been growing in our gardening knowledge each year, getting to know our community better through this process, and gaining a deeper appreciation for the people involved in growing our food. 


How much square footage of space are you growing on and about how much food are you able to grow yearly?

Our backyard is about 200 sqft, but it's all concrete and very shaded so we have a bunch of containers and about 25 sq feet of raised beds. We also have two 8x4 plots in one community garden, and two 7x3 plots in another, and there's a few communal plots as well. I hope to next year really quantify the amount of food we grow, but for now it's enough to almost entirely cut out our produce budget in the summer months. When our two chickens are actively laying, we can get up to 10 eggs a week - perfect for us. We're hoping to get a third chicken this year, and have enough eggs to share.


What do you love about living in your community in Baltimore?

So much - it's my favorite part about living here. There's a lot of passion, support, and energy - people are generous of their time and are so kind. It really has more of a small-town feel, where a bunch of people know your name, and you stop and make conversation at the grocery store or while walking your dog - than a typical city. Some folks might prefer the anonymity of a city, but I really like living in such a close-knit place.  


When did you get involved in working at community gardens? 

Immediately upon moving to Baltimore. In DC, where we lived before, open lots were rare, and community gardens were a hot commodity with waiting lists for several years! When we moved here, we asked around and were immediately pointed to the neighbors who managed community gardens, others who ran greening committees, and even others who just had chickens in their yard. It was easy to get involved right away.


What power do you think community gardens and urban agriculture has on eliminating food deserts?

There's a lot of really interesting research going on around that right now, actually. From an anecdotal level, we've grown food and shared it with neighbors going through rough patches, but to be honest I think the most beneficial aspect of community gardens is creating and building community - helping solidify networks and building a support system - over eliminating food deserts. I do believe people who are involved in gardening eat more fruits and vegetables - it's hard not to! Urban agriculture and community gardens may be part of eliminating food deserts, but eliminating food deserts will require intentional policy shifts to improve healthy food access in redlined communities. It's also important not to allow community gardens usher in gentrification and displacement in low-income areas. 


Do you feel like there is a movement underway of more young people being interested in learning to grow food? 

I think in general there's a movement underway of better understanding where your food comes from, and the impact of certain diets and lifestyles. And as a result, the logical next step for many is growing some yourself. I think it's great, and I hope there continues to be a focus on nutrition and gardening, starting at very young ages. 


Do you have any advice for people interested in growing their own food or starting an urban farm?

Do it! Start small, check out some books on container gardening or gardening in small spaces, and get started. It doesn't cost a lot of upfront money - check craigslist, yard sales, dollar stores, and even get creative with what you're recycling. Gardeners are generally really supportive, so reaching out to your neighbors or friends who garden will often get you some good advice or maybe even some seeds/transplants. Herbs are great to start with, since they don't need much space and are so much cheaper to grow yourself, than to buy at the grocery store. 

Specifically in regards to an urban farm, do your research on your cities land policies - look into land trusts that will assure that you won't lose your land to developers, something we're dealing with right now at one of the community gardens. Also look into grants - more and more cities are recognizing that green spaces are important for communities, public safety, and health, and are setting aside funds for greening projects and urban ag. Check out resources online and what other cities are doing. If you find urban ag policies are restrictive - such as no livestock within 500 feet of residents - you can organize with other like minded individuals to get that changed.  


Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?

The inspiration comes from the act of growing - from being outside, planting seeds and a few months later harvesting delicious vegetables on my walk home from the bus stop. I also get inspired from the many other people and orgs doing really cool, important work around food justice and ending food apartheid in Baltimore City and other urban areas. Folks like the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III of the Black Church Food Security Network, the Black Yield Institute, and the Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Finally, from seeing and learning from other urban agriculture projects in the city, like Real Food Farm, Whitelock Farm, Baltimore Free Farm, and Strength II Love farm. 


What hopes do you have for the future of food and farming in America? 

I hope to see a more diverse future of farming - a future that supports small farms using environmentally sound methods, that prioritizes Black and Brown farmers, women farmers, LGBT farmers. I hope to see less massive conglomerates lobbying for flooding low-income areas with nutrient-poor fast food, and instead a future where everyone has access to high-quality, nutrient-dense, affordable food. That future is entirely possible and I'm excited to see it happen. 


Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, etc. that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?

There's lots of great books out there - Chelsea Publishers has an awesome list. A basic thorough guidebook on growing vegetables is important - there's so many out there that I don't have a specific recommendation. Square Foot Gardening is a good book if you're trying to densely grow a lot of food in a small space. I'm currently reading The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and getting some good ideas. The Backyard Homestead is a gem. I have a subscription to Mother Earth News that I really love. I learn a lot from my older neighbors who have been gardening in urban areas for a lot longer than me. If you're a bit more serious about it, I would look up your local Master Gardener program - I'm currently in the Baltimore City program and it's a very well-rounded program for folks who may not necessarily want to get a degree in agriculture, but want more in-depth knowledge about gardening.


What are some common misperceptions about urban gardening that you would like to dispel?

That it can't be done - that you can only be self-sufficient on a dozen acres of land - or that you need all sorts of expensive technology to do it. Urban gardening just requires a different kind of creativity and can be done on any kind of budget and any kind of ability level. And sure, you're not going to be able to grow enough on one or two garden plots to never go to a grocery store again, but you can get access to healthier, more nutritious produce, and a greater variety than you might be able to otherwise. 


What plans do you have for the coming year?

So many! We're currently in the process of dividing up our yard for the back portion to be for the chickens and compost, and the front to be our raised beds, fire pit, and outdoor eating area. I love the chickens, but they have no concept of personal space and are very bold about wanting to be in your business and stealing your food! We hope to be active about our four plots in other community gardens (including adding little hoop houses over the beds to prolong the growing season), and to work on more community programming - workshops, cookouts, potlucks. We were recently gifted a canning system as well as a book on fermenting, so I'm looking forward to developing those skills and prolonging our harvests. We'd like one more chicken, and I'm currently working on setting up a DIY seed-starting station with grow lights. I'm also hoping to take a class or two on foraging, and harvesting mulberries from various parks in the city. Long-term, we would love to move somewhere more rural, with more trees and space for a few goats and beehives, but for now, we're learning and growing here in southwest Baltimore. 



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