Vegetables are planted on every spare inch of the property, all 1/10th of an acre of it. With squash planning their cascade over rock walls, artichoke returning for a second season, garlic standing tall, and chickens roosting through the compost, Beacon Street Farm has made expert use of its space. Lara Lepionka and her family live on this downtown sidestreet of Gloucester, their purple home set on a high corner lot. With the steep incline of the front and side yards, Lara has terraced the land like a rice farmer in Bali. Her farm produces an incredible array of vegetables from the tiniest of spaces, and it all has a sense of ordered chaos.
Lara and her husband, Stevens Brosnihan, are both trained and educated artists, and it is apparent in their approach to their four year old farm. In an effort to show that growing one’s own food is an attainable goal, they have fashioned most of their planting beds, terracing, and chicken coop from found materials. There are pathways of brick, stonewalls and planting beds in all shapes and orientations. This creative reuse of materials is part of the core principles they rely upon; Beacon Street Farm aims to not only produce enough food to feed their family, but to do so in a way that is easily duplicated, community based, artful, and inexpensive. A large part of its mission statement is devoted to the community on both a very minute and a more general scale, for it aims to “develop conceptual, community-based projects that speak to people, sustainability, food systems, and the urban ecology,” the website declares. Lara is hopeful that neighbors and visitors will realize the possibilities their small plots of land offer; on a smaller scale, anyone could do some of what Beacon Street Farm does.
With lucky south-facing orientation, Beacon Street Farm enjoys lots of sunlight. Lara notes that the atmosphere of concrete and cars in cities creates a microclimate that can be taken advantage of by urbanites. That, combined with the dark color of her house, allows for earlier planting in the spring, later harvests in the fall, and longer daytime warmth stored up in the hardscape around the planting beds. Urban gardens are not a new idea—wherever there is a dense human population there is likely to be a heavily planted and richly diverse farm space nearby— they have just become less prevalent. Lara is trying to change that in downtown Gloucester.
Beacon Street Farm has endless raised planting beds. Lara opts to raise the beds and bring in compost to avoid the lead-laden soil in the ground. Since the roots of annuals, i.e. most vegetables, do not extend too deeply, a raised bed suffices to support the needs of the plants. She grows lettuces, mustards, tatsoi, tomatoes, chard, kale, artichokes, radishes, potatoes, fennel, peas, squash, corn, and so much more. In fact, her bountiful harvests are large enough to not only feed her family, but to supply restaurants too. She is one of the primary farmers depended on by The Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove, in Annisquam, and Duckworth’s Bistrot in Gloucester. Her greens are delicate and sharp, beautiful, and crisp. To increase my already blooming adoration of her operation, the greens and vegetables are often delivered in wicker baskets.
With Lara’s mission to make her work duplicable and community-based, she often works with other organizations with the same desire. She paired up with the Cape Ann Farmers Market’s Nikki Bogin and Melissa Dimond to start the Backyard Growers program. Started to help low to moderate income families in the center of urban Gloucester start growing their own vegetables, Backyard Growers is now in its second year. With the help of their partners The Food Project, The Open Door Garden Project, Riverdale Park Resident’s Group, and Gloucester District Schools, Lara and her co-founders have been able to double the size of the operation, now reaching approximately thirty families. The program provides all necessary materials to start a garden: the raised bed, compost, seeds, seedlings, installation, training, and mentoring. With the aim to increase access to fresh, organic vegetables and knowledge and skills in farming, BG wants to create a community more focused on nutrition and self-sufficiency. In doing so, Backyard Growers is reaching a larger community—and making their own—with each growing season. To be eligible, one must live in a specified area of town and preference is given to those in a certain income bracket. Although, anyone can apply that lives in the designated area, for the main goal is to create a supportive farming community where each participant can easily find the help they need. Backyard Growers plans to expand to other Gloucester communities in the years to come, but not before they have a firm grasp on the gardens and needs of current participants.
The day I visited Beacon Street Farm, my coworkers and I planted three types of tomatoes I had never heard of. Obscure heirlooms from Yugoslavia and Germany, we tucked them into an already bursting bed full of herbs and greens. We straddled the beds, balanced on high stonewalls, and passed compost and seedlings back and forth to get the job done. In such a garden, teamwork and able footwork is not only necessary, but much more rewarding. We dug out two beds recently obscured by a compost delivery, drank ice cold water in ball jars, and had some chocolates from the maker down the street. Little Bea, Lara and Stevens’ four-year old daughter, told us she likes everything about the garden- the dirt, the salads, the chickens and the hoses. She splashes around in the spray when it gets too hot, then continues her rounds overseeing progress at the farm.
To see Lara and Stevens’ artwork, visit http://www.beaconstreetfarm.org/
To get information about Backyard Growers, visit: http://www.capeannfarmersmarket.org/backyard-growers/index.html
And to get information about Beacon Street Farm, visit: http://www.beaconstreetfarm.org/beaconstreetfarm/