The joys of urban farming

A children’s swimming pool and plastic barrels cut in half can be used to grow some of the many vegetables, fruits and herbs to be found in Nancy D’Angelo’s Brighton Heights garden. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

There are no cascading waterfalls and no manicured lawns, but anyone visiting Nancy D'Angelo's Brighton Heights' garden is in for a sensory treat.

First, there is the eye-popping sight of vegetables growing on almost every square inch of available land, as well as climbing up fences and sprouting in containers stacked throughout two narrow strips of land that truly qualifies the space as being a city farm. And then there is the sound of the 5-foot cornstalks knocking around in the breeze, as well as the padding about of the canine crew of Samantha, Laden and Chunkie, Nancy's helpmates, to be later explained.

But what probably only a true gardening enthusiast could observe and soak in is the smell, an aroma of organic soils, compost turning to black gold, the mixture of scents given off by closely planted vegetables. A gardener's Chanel, to be sure.

Nancy grew up with all of that, so it is not new to her.

"We always had gardens. My grandparents had a big garden in West View, and the entire family helped with the planting, tending, and picking. It's just something we always did."

And it's something that is filling in what she hopes will be a short time between jobs. Out of work as a physical education teacher due to downsizing in her former school district, some prospects are beginning to show up, but for now, there are the arugula, basil, baby watermelon, baby pumpkins, butternut squash, corn, cucumbers, lettuce -- at least five varieties -- peppers (hot and ghost), onions, oregano, spaghetti squash, strawberries, sweet peas, tomatoes, zucchini.

Add to that the eucalyptus and the banana and lemon trees, along with a variety of hosta, marigolds and sunflowers spread about for a little color in the midst of the green while waiting for the produce to ripen.

The "farm" has been developing since Nancy moved to her present home in 2002.

"I started out with a small plot, but I knew I needed more space. So I offered to cut grass for the owner of an apartment building next door in exchange for being allowed to use the space along the side of his building."

And it has grown in size and harvest since then.

Husband Kerry helps with spring tilling -- under protest -- and he helps to clear it down in the fall.

"Of course, he reaps the benefits," Nancy said with a smile, acknowledging that she is the prime gardener, with a little help from the dogs who humor her with a whimsical little game she plays each year.

"They accompany me around the garden," Nancy said, "and in the spring, I notice which seeds they might step on. Whatever seeds Samantha steps on become her plants, and so on with the other two. Then, if I sell some of those plants, the money goes into their jars for special treats."

But what to do with enough produce to keep an entire family on a vegetarian diet?

"I freeze lots of the food for the winter, and we give away vegetables to neighborhood people who just don't have much."

She also donates food to area churches, and a few years ago helped Holy Family Institute students with a gardening project. If she has leftovers, she sometimes sells them from a table set up on the sidewalk.

Nancy grows everything from seed, starting the plants in her basement, but she is always looking for something new. "I have people stop by and ask, 'Hey! Do you want to try this?' I'm always getting cuttings and shared plants."

And she gives a shout-out to Chuck at Trax Farms, who recycles containers and greenhouse materials to her, "…as well as a wealth of advice and knowledge."

Most people have an appreciation of her work, some thinking that it's a community garden. Nancy appreciates their appreciation, but she does not understand why more people do not share, if only to a small degree, her avocation.

"I don't know why people don't at least have container gardens. How can't they understand the value of that, especially with prices as they are?"

Nancy runs her fingers through zucchini seeds drying in a pan on the table, seeds that will be used next year. Another trait of true gardeners is that they tend to start thinking of next year's season before the present one is half gone.

"It just amazes me. Maybe it's because I've done this from back when I was growing up and we didn't have a lot of money. Kudos to my parents for teaching me all of this!"

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