Wars of Separation

——-

It is the balance of things
we must unlearn ourselves
back towards.

We’ve been taught
to take sides, to favor one hand over the other,
in towns separated by color, and schools awarding trophy’s to intelligence and athletes,
to console the vices of pride.

We’ve grown to pledge allegiance
to one god,
one country,
and intolerance for another’s.

We have created the imblanace
by creating a way to measure difference,
justifying our wars and our charity
upon this idea.

Somewhere within this short amount of time,
the World broke into three,
and today the Third manifests a sickness
of the First one’s dis-ease;

for money will not prevent Ebola,
nor hunger, nor homelessness;
for it is the accumulation beyond necessity
which begets imbalanced wealth and poverty.

True philanthropy is a willingness not only to give,
but to receive;
just as those who listen,
will be heard.

So be calm,
be quiet,
smile and
accept difference as beautiful.

As we all must
let go
to balance.

——-

digger

Douglass DeCandia is the Food Growing Program Coordinator at the Food Bank for Westchester, which operates on five sites located throughout Westchester County – Leake & Watts Residential Campus, New York School for the Deaf, Sugar Hill Farm at Westchester Land Trust, Westchester County Department of Correction and Woodfield Cottage.

Faces of Farming: A Conversation with Gil Lopez

This is the twelfth installment of our series, Faces of Farming: Exploring Urban Agriculture in New York City, where New York-based photojournalist Maggie Gorman will share photographs, stories and thoughts from her recent visits with people behind the farming scene throughout the five boroughs. In this series, she explores the identity of urban farming through a rich, youthful perspective – spotlighting New York City as a pioneer in the urban agriculture movement. This series is a part of our Urban Agriculture Project, which is aimed at connecting individuals, increasing farm based education and raising awareness through creativity, partnerships and research.

IMG_8310

Gil Lopez at Smiling Hogshead Ranch.

What’s your favorite crop to grow?

My favorite crop is the one that’s producing right now. It always changes. I really like berries. I love blueberries, strawberries, currants. I need to get some gooseberries in here. Juneberries. I like berries a lot. Raspberries and blackberries.

What is your least favorite crop to grow or hardest to maintain?

You know what? I don’t really do that much maintenance. I’m like the puppet master here. I just kind of promote the shit out of work days and get volunteers here. I organize our members and I make sure that someone’s in charge of making sure we have a planting plan and someone’s in charge of making sure stuff gets weeded and watered, but I don’t actually do that much farming as it were. But, I think compost is one of the most difficult things to maintain.

How so?

It’s heavy. It requires a lot of back-breaking work. It’s never done. There is no off-season for compost, compost happens even in the winter time. If you don’t stay on top of it, it starts to stink and attract pests. It’s also one of the most rewarding crops when it’s done properly and you have the right amount of people and care given to it.

What led you to urban agriculture?

I had a Bachelors Degree in Landscape Architecture, and I was a little bit frustrated with the focus on aesthetic ornamental landscapes that were being installed. The whole idea that you need to use petrochemicals to create fertilizers and insecticides and herbicides and fungicides. As well as putting so much water, which was a dwindling resource in Florida where I was practicing at the time on these crops that had no yield. And, on top of that, you have all of these landscape industry workers who are getting paid just above poverty rate wages to really work in really harsh, hot humid conditions doing heavy lifting and really back-breaking work to maintain these quite beautiful, but very unproductive and futile landscapes for people who often times didn’t even live there – who just came to enjoy it and wanted ti to be summer time all year round.

As a rejection of that idea, I began moving more in this direction. I started getting into permaculture. I started getting into the urban agriculture stuff. And just trying to figure out what technologies are appropriate for shifting landscapes as we move into a different era. We’re a very rich country, but there are so many people living in poverty, we really have to lead by example both by reducing the amount that we consume but also increasing the amount that we produce. I would love for this urban agriculture movement and guerrilla gardening movement to really galvanize a shift from a nation of consumers to a nation of producers.

What’s your definition of creativity?

That’s a hard question. I think creativity is something that is innate within all of us and it’s something we have to discover. I think self discovery is the first step to creativity. And individual creativity is very powerful and the easiest form of creativity. Collaborative creativity is much more rare. A lot of times working together with people to create something can lead to this high-mind, lowest common denominator way of thinking. Creativity definitely needs to be in place whenever your doing urban agriculture because you have to work around a lot of very strict rules and a lot of very hard to work with facts of life. Take the Red Hook Urban Farm, for example, they’re on top of what used to be a basketball court. They had to bring in soil and basically just build a farm on top of asphalt. The person that saw a bunch of basketball courts and a fence and said ‘oh, that could be an urban farm,’ that’s a creative genius, you know. And, it’s not something that is difficult really. It just takes a certain thing to tap into and to look at things in a different light.

What’s the difference in a tomato that you buy at a supermarket in January and a tomato that you harvest from your farm in season?

Well, the consumer experience is one. Just going to a grocery store and picking a tomato from a pile of tomatoes and paying the cash register or cash register attendant for it is a completely different experience than either starting a seed and growing a small seedling or going and purchasing a seedling and putting that into the ground and caring for it, babying it and watching it grow, making sure that pests aren’t on it, watering it, just giving it love. The love and attention that you give to a plant – you end up eating that, you end up taking that back into your body. Without getting too philosophical about it, the difference is huge. It’s absolutely so enormous that people have written books about it.

Tomatoland is a wonderful book that goes into great detail about the amount of chemicals and factory farming. And, basically modern day slave labor that goes into it. And, the picking of tomatoes and the hybridization of tomatoes that can last through the whole process of being picked and stacked in these big containers by farm workers, dumped into a truck and traveled hundreds of miles to a processing center to get dumped out and sorted through and gassed so that they become red and then packaged again and redistributed. And then separated out in other boxes and redistributed to grocery stores, then handled by your grocer and put out on the shelves for you to come and pick. That’s a lot different voyage than a tomato has been raised with love and then picked by your hand and then sliced by your hand or just popped into your mouth and eaten of out your hand. It’s impossible to explain the difference between those two, they’re so vastly different.

I completely agree. Where do you see the movement of urban agriculture in New York City heading towards?

I see the corporate citizens of the Earth, the multi-national corporation trying to get their hands in it. I see them wanted to sponsor a lot more of the established urban agriculture things going on. And, that could be a good or a bad thing. I won’t go into that. I also see a shift in the way that urban agriculture is understood. Right now, I think currently, the understanding of urban agriculture is just what everyone understands as agriculture – a row crop production farm in miniature, posted up in the middle of an urban grid somewhere or in a school in an urban setting. Maybe on top of a roof, maybe if someone gets a lot of money and can afford to do that. So, I see there being a shift from that to more of an understanding that urban agriculture and what agricultural product is is not limited by herbs and garden variety type vegetables.

I think we’re going to look a lot more closely at what I’ve been calling and dubbing the urban ecotones. The interstitial places between our residential, industrial and commercial areas. The spaces between, underneath and on top of our buildings and our infrastructure like our streets, our waterways, our railroad and subway infrastructures. Looking very closely at what now is called food waste that comes from our kitchens and understanding that waste is a completely human idea and reformulating the idea and recognizing that food scraps from kitchens are resources and separating them our and not giving them to landfills. Or, giving them up so easily to farms upstate or in other places and using them locally to build our local soils. And, really looking at the resources that we have here in the cities that we currently, often times, deem as waste – waste water, food waste. We have so many things that we basically throw away or just don’t know how to deal with.

I think that if we can realize that nature has wonderful ways of dealing with these things and mimic that. Biomimicry is a big thing nowadays, I’m enamored with the idea of biomimicry, but sometimes, often times, it gets so technological. We want to reproduce the way that this insect does this thing so we use all of our technology that we know how to do it. I think a really great thing about urban agriculture is that we’re mimicking what – not necessarily what nature does, I mean humans are a part of nature but we have such a big brain that we are changing nature – but we’ve been agrarian for a long time. We rely on a small percentage of the population to feed us. I think that as we look at our agrarian roots and understand this biomimcry idea and we apply it to our cities that we can build buildings that mimic our agrarian roots and can be very productive in ways that a lot of people don’t really understand right now. There is a few forward thinkers, some urban designers, landscape architects, architects and philosophers and futurists who have envisioned buildings that can be really productive. And, infrastructure pieces like railways that can also double as productive things. I think a lot of those high-minded ideas are going to be brought very much closer to the ground and shot down because of the costs that they have, but implemented in very grassroots ways. People are going to be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a really awesome idea. I don’t have the money to do that. How can I do that? I’m just going to McGiver it. I’m going to use a tin can and a milk crate and some string and we’re going to set it up so it gets plenty of sun exposure. And we’re going to do this to a whole building and it’s going to be the next thing and somebody’s going to figure out how to improve on that.’

If you’ve heard of Window Farms, this is a project that a permaculturist that got her certificate in like 2010 just decided that she was going to make a hydroponic system in the window of her Brooklyn apartment. And she’s not going to grow enough food to feed herself, but she’s going to grow some food. And it’s become a movement. On top of doing that, she built a website that allowed people to talk about how they’re doing this and she created this, what she calls, R&DIY. So, research and develop it yourself. I think that there’s a lot of gravity in that. There’s a lot of wight to that. And, as people become more interested in their food systems and as people begin to talk amongst each other through vast gulps of space through the Internet and collaborate on building better systems, we’re going to shift the way that cities eat.

How do you think supermarkets, like Whole Foods, impact the food movement?

Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Natural Frontiers… all of these grocery stores, especially the big ones. The big national ones like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, in particular, they can do several different things. they bring a lot of awareness to average consumer about what it is we’re eating. They also work against that goal by being deemed as ‘Whole Paycheck’ or too expensive for the average consumer. So, there’s a push and a pull there. There is a Whole Foods that just opened up in Brooklyn that actually has a green roof on top of their building and they sell produce from the green roof. It’s a green roof, but it’s a greenhouse on top of their roof, which is different than a green roof. I’m sorry, it’s a hydroponic greenhouse on top of their facility, which is not a green roof. So, especially in these urban areas where the ideas are ripe and the consumer market is there, a company like Whole Foods can push forward. But, as they go into areas where people don’t have the same paychecks or mentality, there can be a backlash against that whole idea and the movement can be stifled completely. Whole Foods is wonderful for one demographic and planting your own garden is wonderful for a different demographic. There has to be multi-pronged approaches. Whole Foods, unfortunately, is about as close as it gets to a top-down approach for the organic movement. Often times top-down approaches do not work for people that are trying to organize on grassroots levels. To get people who are generally held down and oppressed by the top to understand whats going on. So, I don;t really shop at Whole Foods. I’m not a huge fan. I know people making amazing products that are sold at Whole Foods and I think that’s awesome. There’s definitely multiple sides to that coin other than the ones that I’ve just pointed out.

Yeah, there is kind of a hierarchy of who gets to eat what.

Exactly.

What kind of programs do you offer through Smiling Hogshead Ranch?

We have just work days where we do the mundane. Filling up our water tanks, and watering and weeding and planting and clearing out beds of weeds and planting more beds. We have edible fruit tree and shrub care work days once a month. Our educational workshops where people can come in and help us take care of our fruit trees and shrubs. And, learn about the different things. Every month there’s different things that need to be done. We have to add fertilizer this month, we have to check for infestations of disease or insects this month, we have to look for other sorts of disease or fungal infections, we have to prune, some months we just have to water the mess out of them, when it;s harvest time we have to make sure that we’re educating people around here. Like, ‘This is not a green apple, you don’t pick it when it’s green, you have to wait for it to ripen.’ Or else all of our fruit will just end up gone before it’s even ripe.

We’ve has herbal tea making workshops. We have work days with our compost. I’ve taught people about mycelium, mushrooms, fungi… how to grow them both to eat, for edible purposes, and also how to inoculate them onto your ground so that you can start cleaning up these urban soils and toxins in these soils with the mushrooms. We’ve had construction days where we’ve had people out with some power tools and we’ve had a little bit of fun with that. We’ve had arts and crafts in the garden where we make signs. We made a wind chime over there. Painting things and just getting crafty in general in the garden. There’s just a whole gamut of things. We hope to build a stage in the back and let people sing up online to use the stage for an hour or two increments and just have a public stage. We offer yoga every other weekend. It’s a donation based class. You bring your own mat and we have it outside in a shady area on top of the mulch. All sorts of stuff.

What’s your favorite activity to do in this space?

Lay in my hammock. Is that considered an activity? (Laughter)

How do you maintain an organic garden?

With lots of help. Lots and lots of help. We have a planting plan. We have a rotation plan. So, every year we rotate our crops out so that we’re not exhausting our soil. We have fallowed beds each year. We use green manures. We have cover crops that we turn into our soil as green manures. You stay on top of your pests, you look at what’s happening. Integrated pest management. We mechanically remove pests and we use some organic based solutions to manage some of the pests. We intercrop a lot. there’s not nay bed out here that has one thing in it, except for maybe our garlic, which grows over the winter and actually had a bunch of cover crop in it as well. We’ve removed most of the cover crop, but… Intercropping is really important. We build compost. We have community compost collections that we take from the community, the food scraps and we turn them into healthy soils. We use the compost to fertilize our fruit trees and shrubs and all of our beds. We try to stay on top of weeding.

We organize large and small work days to get people out here. Sometimes it’s just a group of two or three of us, sometimes it’s just one person walking through weeding where we can. And, sometimes, you know, we have a work day and twenty people show up and we knock out seven beds and we clear a whole new area and we eradicate mugwort and we go crazy, but that organization takes work too. We have to put it out on the social networks, we have to create events on Facebook and put it on our calendars and Tweet about it. Create fun little pictures and post them on Instagram and tell people to show up on this certain day at this certain time and create meetup events for seven different meetup groups and hope that somebody shows up.

What’s unique about Smiling Hogshead Ranch?

I think Smiling Hogshead Ranch is unique because it’s on railroad property. It’s not unique, but we started as a squatter garden and that’s something that is very much – that has deep roots in New York City – but that whole mentality had been dormant since about the mid to late seventies. Since the creation of GreenThumb. GreenThumb has made it a lot easier to start community gardens in New York City. And Green Thumb grew out of a group called Green Guerrillas, which was an amazing group that was reclaiming spaces, particularly in lower Manhattan and Harlem. The struggle to maintain those spaces over time led to the city advocating for those spaces in creation of GreenThumb. GreenThumb has gone through several struggles, particularly with the Giuliani administration several years back. But really, it’s been a wonderful thing for the city. It’s made it a lot easier for people to start community gardens, especially on city-owned property. I think Smiling Hogshead Ranch – because we’re not on city owned property – did not have the blessing of GreenThumb unless we were to have the blessing of the property owner, which we did not have to begin with. So, we really started as a renegade, guerrilla, squatter – whatever you want to call it – informal garden. And, that was kind of unique for the day we started in 2011.

A lot of stuff has been starting since then. 596 Acres is a group online that maps publicly owned open space and encourages people to organize around those spaces and get a key from the government agency that manages them and start a community initiative, whether it be a meeting space, a garden or whatever it is in those spaces. We formed at the same time that they formed, essentially. there’s been a lot of these things snowballing in the last few years since we’ve been in existence.

Another thing is – I don’t know exactly how unique this is but – the leadership here is kind of visionary. I won’t really elaborate on that because I’m blowing smoke up my own tail, but I do have a master plan for this space. And, it’s not your typical urban agriculture setup. I really do plan on changing the idea of urban agriculture and I won’t go into too much detail about that. One, just not to let the cat out of the bag, but two, just to not have people asking me, ‘When are you going to do this?’ or ‘When are you going to do that?’ I don’t want to set myself up for falls.

I don’t have anymore questions. I think we’ve covered a lot, but if there is anything else you would like to add…?

I’m just going to go for a little while. Is that okay? You can pick out whatever you’d like. So, Smiling Hogshead Ranch is a informal garden that was founded in 2011. We’re working towards a formal arrangement with the property owner. We hope that that comes soon. the reason that we are working towards that is so we can partner, on a more formal basis, with schools like the one next door to us. And, non-profit groups that work locally. Right now, we can’t do that because technically anyone that comes on site is trespassing.

Guerrilla gardening and urban agriculture are very interesting ways to accomplish a couple of things. Food justice is often an issue. Environmental justice is often an issue in many urban area. Guerrilla gardening is a form of non-traditional direct action. We are creating a world, we’re creating a reality that we want to see and we’re doing it in a way that does not conform with the current rules in place. But, as we’re doing this we’re shedding light on possibilities. And we’re showing administrators, law makers, property owners, whoever it is – people in position of power – what can be. And, if it’s allowed to continue, it’s successful. Guerrilla gardening can work in many different ways to accomplish these ends. I encourage people to look into doing some guerrilla gardening. Some of the things that you want to do if you’re considering becoming a guerrilla gardener is to find out who owns the property. If the property is owned by your neighbors, it might be more harmful to your community than it is helpful. If guerrilla gardening is outlawed in your area, you might want to consider doing it at night. In New York City, people are encouraged to become tree stewards of street trees. People are encourage to maintain small plots and encouraged to get involved and create GreenThumb gardens in city owned properties. So, it’s not outlawed here in the city, but a lot of places it is. In fact, in some places the cities or homeowners associations have essentially put rules or laws in place where you can’t garden in your own front yard. So, gardening in our own front yard, having an edible productive garden in your own front yard, is actually a form of direct action in some cases. And, I encourage that as well. It doesn’t have to be on public property, it can be on your own front yard in some cases. If your homeowners association or city government does not allow productive landscapes in public view, whether it’s your property or not, I encourage you to go out and fight those laws by doing exactly what you’re not supposed to be doing. And, if you get in trouble, I encourage you to cause a stink about it. Contact your local press, contact national press, your story will be picked up. There’s people who are ready to fight for you as well and to lend a voice towards that cause. that said, there are lots of other issues on this Earth, in this nation, that need addressing. So, direct action everywhere.

Eating Through It

The summer’s gone.

I’ve always felt a more acute understanding of its departure than its arrival.

Perhaps my sensitivity to summer’s approach is deadened by the eternal waiting period we all experience. Waiting through the spring for the long languorous warm days of summer. Awareness of its arrival calloused by an unyielding impatience for fruit so ripe that I don’t notice summer’s here until the juice is already dripping down my chin. Maybe.

By the time the fruits are all picked and I’m eating the best to- matoes of the season, I try not to notice that the morning light, my alarm clock, has become a bit lazier, showing up later than the time to which I had grown accustomed, seeming exhausted and disinterested; passively allowing the relationship with sum- mer to die. And I’m groggier, aware of what’s happening but reluctant to admit that it must end. Delusion, one of the mind’s major achievements, keeps us waking up, pulling ourselves out of bed to own the moment, all the while truly knowing we’re just as powerless against the entropy of relationships as we are the more orderly rotation of the seasons. And yet we always try to dodge the end.

With heads down we cultivate the garden, observant of Voltaire’s dervish and the farmer and the futility of idleness or of the wondering why.

I guess it’s easier to have a grip on gravity than that which we believe we should be able to control but can’t: the determinism of what may appear a whimsical emotional tug comes to mind. So rarely do the changing seasons make us cry, even when a warm fall day, redolent of summer, turns us like an apparition of a lost love.

We are quick to find comfort in routine, the beat to which we dance, and we all find routine. Even the proud who eschew routine and cast it aside with disdain are only circumnavigating the more generic definition of the word. The routine finds its way into the work and the work weaves its way along the routine. And nothing wakes us from our comfortable going on like change.

The summer disappears, the winter is endless, and the summer, no matter the rain or our busy lives, is always a long, wonderfully easy jam session that ends too soon. It all ends too soon. It ended too soon.

Adjusting to less light and brisker mornings is one of the more jolting shifts, an abrupt segue that leaves you on the dance floor swaying awkwardly, uncertain how to move your body to the new beat that’s emerging from the fugue that is change. But it comes…it always comes until we become com- post. So now we wait for a new beat, the next beat…the next thing to eat.

The leaves have begun flaming out, giving their green to the acorns and ripe shells of black walnuts: A departing gift. And the brilliant leaves falling off the trees are wildly beautiful: the oranges and reds, yellows and purples, electrified with a drama far different from the whisper of a more reserved morning light, quietly heralding summer’s departure.

Soon the swirling winds will whisk the colorful leaves by my face as I stand powerless, happily, happily powerless in the middle of the grand rotation, reminded of all sum- mer gave, of its bounty growing over fences and into the roadsides, the early mornings filled with so much to do to manage the aggressive growth. And I’ll remember wine drunk late into the night as I rested in the soft grass, still warm though the sun had gone, and I’ll remember the juice and the sticky hands and the perfume of the delicate flowers whose scent belies their fragility and I’ll also remember the tomatoes that never made it into jars, but fell, rotting in the garden, an unused offering. The fruits and greens, the berries and herbs that summer pushed upon us and yet we could not get to all of them even though the days were so long. The days were long and for a moment, lost in the dance, I thought it would never end.

Zakary Pelaccio is the chef of Fish & Game in Hudson, NY and the author of the book “Eat With Your Hands.”

A version of this article appears published in the Summer 2014 Newsletter from Fish & Game titled Summer: Year Two, which can be seen here.

 

Easy Does It

——-

The efficiency gained by any advance in technology
will never compare to the ease
and ultimate productivity
of letting go to every desire to advance.

The higher we build,
the further we get from our roots.
The more we develop,
the more burdens we create.

To again know
the richness of simply living
will take progress in the other direction
than where we have been told.

There’s no paved road to take us
where we need to go;

no new seed
that could feed us better
than those passed down from a time before poison would fake fertility;

no written law
to defend the justice deeper
than the righteousness inherent to our nature.

There is nothing beyond
what we already have,
and everything we will ever need
needs only to be uncovered.

——-

digger

Douglass DeCandia is the Food Growing Program Coordinator at the Food Bank for Westchester, which operates on five sites located throughout Westchester County – Leake & Watts Residential Campus, New York School for the Deaf, Sugar Hill Farm at Westchester Land Trust, Westchester County Department of Correction and Woodfield Cottage.

A Believer in Vacant Lots

During the growing season, Karen Washington works nearly every day in the Garden of Happiness, the community garden that she helped found in 1988 across the street from her home in the Bronx. Next month she is to receive a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for her community work. Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Karen Washington, a community activist who has been called “urban farming’s de facto godmother,” found her bliss when she moved to the Bronx nearly 30 years ago and began growing vegetables in her backyard. Gardening was not part of her heritage.

“My parents and grandparents were not farmers,” said Ms. Washington, who recently retired after 37 years from her day job as a physical therapist. “I took out books from the library and learned what to do.”

Savoring the memory of her initial harvest, which included eggplant, peppers and collard greens, she said it was the tomatoes that were life-changing. “When I bit into the first tomato I ever grew, it turned me around,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is what a tomato is supposed to taste like.’ I was hooked.”

As she walked under her grape arbor and past the strawberry plants, she pointed to the bee hive in the rear of her long, narrow yard. “You know, I got the bees for pollination,” said Ms. Washington, who has blond dreadlocks and a perennial smile. “I need to provide them with a home. If I don’t get honey, I couldn’t care less, but I got 24 quarts this spring.”

“Let me give you some candy,” she continued as she handed a visitor a just-picked yellow cherry tomato. “Candy, right?”

Named in 2012 to Ebony magazine’s “Power 100” of influential African-Americans (a list including names such as Beyoncé, Oprah and Toni Morrison), Ms. Washington, 60, will receive a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award next month along with Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food,” and Mark Bittman, the columnist for The New York Times.

“I appreciate that the James Beard folks are recognizing a grass-roots person from the Bronx,” said Ms. Washington, adding that she was gratified that the other two of the five honorees were also members of minority groups: Ben Burkett, the president of the National Family Farm Coalition; and Navina Khanna, the field director of Live Real in California.

Ms. Washington moved from an apartment in Harlem to a brand-new brick rowhouse two blocks from the Bronx Zoo in 1985. “I’d read an article in The Times about how the city wanted to bring the middle class back to the five boroughs,” she recalled. “I put in an application and one day I got a letter inviting me to look at a model home on 180th Street.”

After she toured the model, she was told that if she wanted to buy one of the $50,000 houses she should come back the next day with a $500 deposit. “This was my big chance as a single mother with two children to own something,” said Ms. Washington, who returned with the money and was given a pin to put on a map to select the location she wanted. “Thank God I chose this spot because of the empty lot across the street.”

Initially, the lot on Prospect Avenue was an eyesore. “It was full of garbage, which I now know is environmental racism,” she said. “People look down at you if you live in a neighborhood with garbage.”

One day in 1988, she looked out her kitchen window and saw a man with a shovel and pick in the lot. It was Jose Lugo, a neighbor who said he wanted to create a garden; Ms. Washington offered to help, and they’ve been working together ever since.

“It must have been fate, because the next day a big green truck that said Bronx Green-Up pulled up.” A worker hopped out “and said she was from the New York Botanical Garden and that they were in the process of turning empty lots into community gardens and they would help us.”

It was the birth of what is officially called the Garden of Happiness. “If you come into the garden feeling sad, you will leave feeling happy,” she said, walking through the allée of holly bushes that forms a graceful entrance to the 36-plot garden.

One of the things she loves about the garden is being able to raise hens across the street from her house. She sells the eggs at the nearby La Familia Verde farmers market she runs on Tuesdays. With help from Just Food, a group dedicated to improving access to locally grown food, she said, “we built this mansion, this chicken coop. My girls live royally. I feed them organic grain and leftover vegetables.”

The Garden of Happiness led to Ms. Washington’s involvement with the New York Botanical Garden, just 10 blocks from her house but not on her radar. “I thought it was for Westchester people and the very elite,” she said.

But her perspective changed when the botanical garden provided the Garden of Happiness with fruit trees, bushes, perennials, transplants and seeds. Her relationship with the botanical garden flourished as she helped spread the word about community gardens. “I would do these dog and pony shows for Bronx Green-Up with Gregory Long, who is the garden’s president,” she said. “He asked me to be on the board about six years ago — a grass-roots person like me!”

When the botanical garden received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service in 2010, Mr. Long invited Ms. Washington to the White House for the ceremony. “I got to meet the first lady,” she said. “It was one of the highlights of my life. Michelle Obama is more beautiful than she is on TV.”

Sitting in her paneled living room surrounded by African art and artifacts — Dogon doors, juju boxes, masks and carved figures that are nearly as tall as she — Ms. Washington explained that she wasn’t a collector until about 18 years ago. “My daughter came home from college at Notre Dame and said, ‘Mom, we don’t have anything ethnic in our house,’ ” said Ms. Washington, who started buying African art from a sidewalk vendor in Greenwich Village. “I kept going back and it became an addiction,” she said. “I don’t buy anymore because I ran out of room.”

Now Ms. Washington, who has been apprenticing at Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, N.Y., is thinking about becoming a full-time rural farmer. “A group of my friends wants to buy land upstate,” said Ms. Washington, who studied organic gardening at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “I spent six months there living in a tent,” she said, which “really upped my activism. I looked at the whole food system and didn’t see people who looked like me.” This led her to help found the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference. “I knew my mission was to grow food in a way so people understand this is how we are supposed to eat. We are not supposed to eat food from a can or a box.”

Recently, she bought a shiny black four-door pickup. “It’s my baby,” she said. “When I got this truck I thought, ‘People will take me seriously as a farmer.’ ”

Ms. Washington has never been to one of the celebrity chefs’ dinners at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village, and extravagant dining is not her style. “My friends are good and simple people,” she said. “We go into our gardens, grab something we grew and have a meal together. That’s powerful. That’s living for us.”

A version of this article appears in print on September 21, 2014, on page RE4 of the New York edition with the headline: A Believer in Vacant Lots.