“When I look around a city like New York, I just see so many blank surfaces and empty spaces that could be used to grow food – all these empty walls, empty rooftops, empty lots, empty windows. Those are all opportunities for people to grow food and plants, and through that to be more connected with what food really is, and to just have a better lifestyle.” – Kimberly Sevilla of Rose, Red & Lavender
Rose, Red & Lavender, a quiet flower shop and garden center on a mildly desolate stretch of Metropolitan Avenue in East Williamsburg, has a secret. Behind a ramshackle fence blocking the view from the sidewalk of a vacant lot next to the shop, owner Kimberly Sevilla is building an urban farm.
When we got wind of the project, we asked Kimberly if we could stop by for a visit. We dropped in on a bright Spring morning a few weeks ago, a few days after the beds had been built and a few hours before the seedlings would be planted.
We’ll be stopping by every few weeks for the remainder of season to talk to Kimberly about her progress with the garden and to take some photos documenting a season in the life of a new farm in an unexpected place.
So Kimberly, tell us about how you became interested in planting and gardening, and how that all led to a farm right here in East Williamsburg.
My passion has always been for food and growing plants. I actually got a degree in chemistry and biology, and I worked for the Department of Agriculture doing genetic research on fruit plants. I loved it. I used to make GMO’s! It’s ironic, because now I’m horrified by that sort of thing. It didn’t occur to me until later in my life that we were messing around with things that we didn’t fully understand.
I enjoyed working as a scientist but I was really attracted to New York City and I wanted to explore life here, and to do something specifically unscientific for a while. I ended up working with several different companies designing and building out window displays for big companies and sets for special events. I worked with Kenneth Cole and Barneys, did special events with the NFL – the Superbowl and Pro Bowl…It was fun, and wild – up and running at 7am, working until 10pm…traveling all over the world.
But after I had my daughter a few years ago I couldn’t keep up with it anymore. So I opened the shop. Rose, Red and Lavender is both a flower shop and a gardening center. There were no decent flower shops in the neighborhood at the time – really just bodega flowers. So we were able to bring really high quality flowers into the neighborhood for the first time.
But the gardening center is really my passion.
Throughout all that time one of the things that had kept me grounded was gardening. Gardening has always been a pretty intense hobby for me. I had a garden here in Brooklyn and I had a garden upstate. My garden was actually about the size of this lot – it was big. I rented backhoes and dug up the plot and started it from scratch. I don’t play around! I also love researching gardening techniques used around the world, and trying those techniques in my gardens.
When I was working my previous job I did a lot of traveling, and whenever I went to other countries on business I’d always take a few personal days to give myself time to study their gardening culture and techniques. I got to see farming and gardening in China, France, Italy, the U.K….I always made sure to visit the garden districts of foreign cities and looked for opportunities to tour gardens to look at how other people were growing food.
I’ve borrowed a lot of gardening techniques from European and Asian cultures where they’ve been gardening in small spaces for a really long time. There have been a lot of ‘non-conventional’ techniques used for ages – like vertical gardens. If you’re in city or town in France or Italy, you’ll see that everyone has window boxes. They’re all growing flowers, plants, herbs in window boxes, so they effectively have a whole garden or whole fields growing on the sides of buildings. The hanging gardens of Babylon were vertical gardens with a drop irrigation system. So a lot of the techniques and approaches to urban gardening and farming that people are excited about today are actually really, really old.
I grew up in West Virginia. I come from a place where people grow their own food. My family has been there since the 1700s and we’ve always grown much of our own food. When I look around a city like New York, I just see so many blank surfaces and empty spaces that could be used to grow food – all these empty walls, empty rooftops, empty lots, empty windows. Those are all opportunities for people to grow food and plants, and through that to be more connected with what food really is, and to just have a better lifestyle.
And it’s not just about food or about politics. In European cities where they grow lots of food, it just feels nice. There’s a lot of green. You feel it in the air. You breathe it in, and it’s different. The streets have a very different feel to them when there is a lot of gardening happening. Anyplace you go in Rome that has an outdoor space has a little table and a chair and something growing. In Paris, in Montmartre, you see kitchen gardens everywhere – with grapes and vegetables and herbs and chickens running around – in the middle of Paris! They’ve been doing this for a really long time. It’s not a new movement or a political statement there. They just enjoy having gardens and plants and really fresh food, and it changes the whole feel of those cities.
We have so much space here. We just don’t use it. We cement it over, or put trash cans in it, or build swimming pools. More and more people around here in Brooklyn are covering their yards in Astroturf. Hey – it’s green and you don’t have to mow it! If you go to a roof and look out, you’ll just see miles of empty rooftops.
So I thought that opening the flower shop and gardening center would be a good way to do what I could to have a business that would help to educate people about gardening here in East Williamsburg and Brooklyn in general.
It’s only really been in the past 50 or 60 years that we’ve gotten so disconnected from growing food, even in big cities like this. That all started with the development of inorganic farming with chemical fertilizers after World War II. All those chemical fertilizers were actually leftover explosives from the war. We had these huge stockpiles of ammonium nitrate that was made to make bombs, and we had this whole manufacturing infrastructure in place to keep making more of it. We needed to find something to do with all this stuff so the scientists went to work and figured out that they could be used as fertilizers – they delivered nitrogen to the soil. That’s how we ended up with products like Miracle Gro and all the chemical fertilizers used on industrial farms all over the country.
The problem with those chemical fertilizers is that ironically they are actually terrible for the soil. They deliver nitrogen, but they bind up a lot of the natural trace nutrients…they basically put a lot of salt into the soil, so after a while the soil becomes extremely depleted and silty. There’s no organic matter left in it. As a result, it produces food that has far fewer nutrients than food that’s grown in soil fertilized with organic materials like manure and compost.
Where I’m from in West Virginia, there used to be lots and lots of small farms, and tomato farming was huge. West Virginia was once one of the biggest tomato growing states in the country. There were canneries everywhere. And then they introduced chemical fertilizers and within fifteen years almost all the farms died. Now they’re just fallow fields or parking lots.
When the soil becomes depleted, the only way to keep growing food in it is to use more and more intensive chemical treatments. But for small farmers that’s not practical for a number of reasons. As the soil is depleted of nutrients, you have to use more and more land and more and more chemical fertilizer in order to produce the same yields you once did on much less land. When you need more land to produce the same yield, you have to mechanize – you need tractors and combines and those sorts of things to manage big farms. A lot of small farmers in West Virginia couldn’t afford all that, and the terrain was too rocky for it anyway. It’s the same story in lots of other places.
And it all leads to what you find now in places like the Midwest or the Central Valley of California – miles and miles of chemically fertilized and chemically treated monoculture. It’s totally unnatural. As a biologist and someone who’s studied horticulture for years, it just makes me dizzy. It’s not a sustainable way of producing food. It’s wrong.
In Europe, all those gardeners in those cities and towns aren’t using Miracle Gro – they’re using manure and compost to fertilize their gardens and farms. I wanted to open the garden center to have a way to help people to garden here in the city, because gardening and growing food really is fun and it does improve your lifestyle, and it helps connect a lot of people to food and to understanding where it all actually comes from.
Wow Kimberly. So, this unassuming little flower and gardening shop has a serious mission lurking in the shadows! Tell me how this ambitious garden project here came about.
Ha ha. So a couple of years after I opened the shop the owner of the building on the lot we’re standing on now tore it down. He was a developer who had some big plan for the property, but he lost his funding and the lot has been vacant ever since. It was depressing. The fence was dilapidated. One year I painted it pink because it was such a mess. The following year it fell down. So I tore it down and contacted the owner of the property and we started to talk.
He asked me if I could plant some grass for him out front. I asked him if I could plant on his property, and he said, “Go ahead and do it.” And this year I was ready, so we’re off! Let me show you what we’re starting with.
[We walk to the back of the lot, climb over a small pile of rubble, and find a buzzing beehive.]
So this is one of the first pieces of the garden that we put in place. You need bees to pollinate your plants. Luckily, a beekeeper approached me – she didn’t have any place to keep her bees, so she asked if she could keep them here and I said, “Yeah!”
We had the help of a group called Cropmob for the initial cleanup. We got most of the lot cleaned up, but we’ve still got this big pile of dirt that needs to be moved into that big hole over there. I’m going to contact them about coming back out to help with that project.
Next week I’m working with a guy named Jason from Red Hook. He’s a chicken guy. He’s designed a chicken coop that has a green roof that you can grow vegetables on. So we’re going to be putting that in over there where you see that pile of bricks against the wall. It’ll be a great way to show people what you can do with a minimal nine foot by twelve foot space – you can raise chickens, grow food and have a good time! That should be going up in the next few weeks.
Right now, I have four beds in place over here by the front of the lot. I’ve got enough wood left over for a fifth bed, and that’ll be going in soon. The guy who owns the Metropolitan Carpet place down the street donated the wood. When that hole in the middle of the lot has been filled we’ll put more raised beds there as well.
Tell me about raised beds. Do you pretty much have to use them in this sort of urban environment?
You need to use raised beds because you can get a much higher yield per square foot, because you can control the soil that goes into it. Rather than trying to amend the really poor lot soil, I can start with organic topsoil and compost in the beds, which will give you high yields of nutrient rich crops right away.
So what are you going to grow?
Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, herbs, cucumbers, pumpkins. I’m going to grow some fun things like rainbow carrots – yellow, orange, purple and red carrots – they’re beautiful! Some other things like people might not be so familiar with like German green tomatoes, zebra tomatoes. We’ll have plenty of leafy greens like kale.
So what do you have in now?
I don’t have anything in just yet! I just built the beds last Saturday. I did a workshop to show people how to build beds, different methods for putting in weed barriers. You can see that we built a couple of different styles of beds to illustrate different approaches. That’ll also help us to see what works best in one bed vs. another.
This bed here is filled with my Cadillac of soils. [Kimberly picks up a heaping handful of rich black dirt] It’s made out of coconut fiber, spent rice hulls, compost, worm castings and a little sand. They didn’t put the sand on their list of ingredients, but there it is.
It’s funny – I don’t tend to think of soil as something that’s manufactured, but for growing or gardening it really is, huh?
Absolutely. This soil is made by a company based in Pennsylvania. They make a great organic product. They use biodiesel in all their vehicles and equipment. They use recycled plastic for all their bags. They’re a great company – really interested in and invested in the environment.
But it isn’t cheap! These beds are each 32 cubic feet. The soil costs $25 for each two cubic foot bag, so it’s an investment of a few hundred dollars, but one of these beds will produce enough food to feed two people for the full growing season.
Really? Wow. You wouldn’t think it by looking at it. It looks small!
Nope, this bed will produce all the food two people would need for a full season.
So when do you need to get things planted?
The tomatoes and beans and the popular guys stay dormant until the ambient temperature reaches the 70s. So I’m not too late – I just need to get them planted now! These beds will all be planted out with little seedlings by later today. So what you see right now is the clean slate.
Exciting! Tell me about the neighborhood?
There are actually a good number of gardeners in East Williamsburg. Particularly among the older Italians. Among people who are gardening enthusiasts there’s a great respect, regardless of age or ethnicity.
A lot of the older Italian folks save all their seeds. They don’t go out and buy new seed every year. Seed is really a gift to us. The whole premise of having more and more hybrids and genetically modifying stuff is really recent. The old Italian folks around here love their gardens and love their plants and still grow with seeds they brought over from Italy or that their parents brought over years and years ago.
I love my garden and my plants, and a lot of the seeds I buy come from West Virginia or Southern states – things I grew up with. My old Italian neighbors peek over the fence and see things they’ve never seen before, and we’ll trade seeds. They’ll give me their prized tomato seeds and I’ll give them my special Southern seeds.
I’ve also had customers come in with seeds from their home countries looking for help growing them. Things like tea! We don’t know how to grow tea here! A Mexican neighbor of mine has this plant they call tea that helps with digestion, and it’s prized. It’s so prized that it gets stolen right out of people’s yards all the time. So he gave me some of those seeds to start growing.
I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of interest the garden generates as it starts really coming to life and grows into a full-fledged farm.
So do you call it a garden or a farm?
Hmm….Until I get my chickens, Farm sounds a little pretentious. So I think of it as a garden for now. Do bees count as animals?