Healing Urban Ground 1
A true grassroots movement

“We actually had a problem with some of the neighborhood kids taking apples from our tree.”

As Philippe Carroll spoke, there was a hint of a smile in his voice.

“We told them, ‘We love that you guys want to come and get the apples, but we have to work for these apples,'” he recalled. “But we offered them that if they wanted, they could help us take care of and grow the apples.”

Carroll and Samantha Arney run Young Urban Homesteaders, through which they practice many aspects of traditional homesteading but in an urban setting. One of these practices is food production, for themselves and to sell at area farm markets.

Healing Urban Ground 2This year, Philippe Carroll and Samantha Arney will plant strawberries in a log box they constructed. Carroll says the wood will decompose into a natural fertilizer as time goes on. Photo by Ryan Schnurr.

The practice of urban gardening, or urban agriculture, in which food is cultivated in urban areas on plots of land or in large containers, is becoming increasingly popular. For many, this is a move toward sustainable urban living and community-building; and for others it’s a way to circumvent socioeconomic barriers by providing fresh fruits and vegetables — sometimes even meat — to those with limited access (we’ve written about this previously here).

But there’s another barrier in place in some communities, including Fort Wayne, that can spoil this venture: toxic soil.

“It’s food we’re dealing with, and people’s health, so we take that pretty seriously.”

Many open plots in Fort Wayne used to have buildings on them. When the buildings were removed and the basements filled in, toxins like lead and gasoline were often left in the soil. This is bad for the cultivation of edible plants because these contaminants could show up in the food.

These Young Urban Homesteaders are out to fix this.

Healing Urban Ground is an initiative to purchase some of these vacant parcels from the city of Fort Wayne and remediate, or “heal,” them. The conventional method, Carroll said, is to excavate the land and extract the toxins. This can cost tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the property size. But he and Arney believe there’s another, cheaper way: phytoremediation.

Healing Urban Ground 6Organizing raised beds in a strategic pattern allows the Young Urban Homesteaders to coordinate plant rotations. Walking paths provide easy access between sections. Photo by Ryan Schnurr.

Phytoremediation, which literally means healing with plants, is a process in which certain plants are used to remove toxins from the ground. Sometimes a plant will break down the toxin right in the soil, and other times it will “soak up” the toxin. When the plant is removed in the latter case, the toxin goes with it.

study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that many people involved in the growing urban agriculture scene are unaware of how to deal with all of the contaminants, like heavy metals, that could be in their soil. Brent Kim, one of the study’s authors, told NPR’s The Salt that this can be because it’s hard to test for every possible contaminant; many of the available tests don’t measure for chemicals like cleaning solvents or those left behind by cars.

One way to work through this, Kim said, is to learn the history of the land’s use, which will tell would-be gardeners a bit about what they might encounter.

“This is for everybody.”

Carroll echoed this sentiment, and he and Arney have done their homework. Since the property they have chosen near the Wells Street corridor is residential, they’re going to start with the most basic tests and move up to do some of the more expensive testing based on its history.

“We don’t want to just blow a bunch of money, but we do want to be safe and get a good spectrum of what we’re dealing with,” he said. “And then we know what to test for from then on.”

Healing Urban Ground, as a project, will work like this: First, purchase the property from the owner. Then soil tests will be done to determine which toxins are present and at what levels. Plants will then be planted and monitored, and the soil will be tested again to determine whether it’s become suitable for edible plants.

“It’s food we’re dealing with and people’s health, so we take that pretty seriously,” Carroll said.

Healing Urban Ground 4Philippe Carroll shows off a homemade “cold frame” — a greenhouse alternative — on their property. Photo by Ryan Schnurr.

The pair said they plan to collect as much data as possible so their work can serve as a reference point for future farmers. If Carroll and Arney find, for example, that there is a significant amount of lead and cadmium on their property, then others in their neighborhood have an idea what to test for rather than having to run every expensive test.

Their plan for the property echoes this healing mission.

“There are ideally multiple end results. One of the first ones is that we would be starting the process within our community of cleaning up the soil, so that way there is more land available for food,” Arney said. But, she added, it’s also “healing the urban ground in terms of community.”

In the long term, Arney and Carroll would love to create a full-fledged “food forest,” modeled after Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest, which minimizes some of the labor by being self-generating. This, they said, is uniquely suited to a neighborhood or community because it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance.

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Carroll and Arney have set up an Indiegogo campaign to help cover the costs of the process, including $2,500 for this extensive soil and plant testing. Patrick Ryan, who is handling much of the fundraising and public awareness for the efforts, said he was encouraged by the initial response.

“I think within about a week it generated over a grand,” he said. “And I was like, ‘[expletive], the public really believes in this, so we got to get this moving.’”

The campaign launched March 11 and has roughly two weeks left. It has currently generated about $3,500 of its $5,000 goal.

Though they’re not interested in organizing an “urban food empire,” as Carroll put it, the pair would love to see others, from children to grandparents, doing the same thing they’re doing.

“This is for everybody,” Arney said. “I always come back to the kids…kids are going to love this.”

And, Carroll says, they do. The kids caught swiping apples from the tree? He says they still show up, but they’re on the other side of the fence, shouting, “Hey! Can we work for apples, can we work for cucumbers?”

Edit: a previous version of this story included information on an event held on April 13, 2014. This information has been removed because the event date has passed.

Ryan Schnurr is a photo and video journalist for INFortWayne.com.