An urban farm in Wilmington, Delaware, via Flickr.

Image: TC Davis

Empty, abandoned lots on quiet streets in Houston Gardens—a neighborhood just outside Loop 610, north of the more well-known Kashmere Gardens—sit overgrown and unused, tucked between dollar stores and churches, funeral parlors and gas stations. Over 510,000 square feet of land just like this dots Houston Gardens, with even more in neighboring Settegast: 533,000 square feet there, contained in land reclaimed by the City of Houston in an undertaking called Project Houston Hope. Through this project, the city's Land Assemblage Redevelopment Authority aims to revitalize these so-called "LARA lots" over the next several years, offering them for as low as $1 per lot to organizations who will redevelop them into useful square footage.

In all, there are more than 2,637,000 million square feet over 436 abandoned lots in Houston neighborhoods much like Houston Gardens: Sunnyside, Acres Homes, Denver Harbor, Third Ward, and Fifth Ward. These historically African American neighborhoods still retain much of the rural character that's been present since their establishment in the 1910s and 1920s as homesites where bungalows were built on pieces of property large enough to support gardens and small livestock such as chickens. To this day, it's not uncommon to find men riding horses through the residential streets of Acres Homes, while Houston Gardens is similarly pastoral, seeming to exist as a small rural town with a surprising, steely tuft of skyscrapers sprouting up just to the south.

"They call Houston Gardens 'rurban,'" says Nick Panzarella, community liason for Edible Earth Resources (and occasional Houstonia contributor), explaining the portmanteau—coined around the same time Houston Gardens was created—that describes a rural area in an otherwise urban setting. Edible Earth is an edible gardening firm best known for the gardens it's been contracted to build outside restaurants such as Coltivare and The Grove, where herbs and vegetables are grown fresh on-site for the restaurant's immediate consumption, giving new definition to the term "local food." The firm has its own plans for some of those abandoned LARA lots—plans that would make even more local produce available for Houston-area restaurants who can't afford to provide lots of their own, plans that make sense in these still quite rural areas.

To that end, Edible Earth has founded Planted Houston, which is in the process of purchasing LARA lots from Project Houston Hope to create a system of urban farms throughout the city. "We've been approved for 10 lots, beginning next month," says Panzarella. "We're starting in Houston Gardens," where they aim to start clearing lots in October.

Unlike this urban farm in Birmingham, Alabama, the Planted Houston urban farms will sell most of their produce directly to restaurants at first. Via Flickr.

Though many of the LARA lots are earmarked for residential development, Planted Houston hopes to eventually transform its abandoned lots into a vast network of urban farms that stretch across the city, from Acres Homes to Independence Heights. Here, the company—Panzarella is quick to note that Planted Houston is not a non-profit, but a for-profit farming business—will contract grow fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other produce for restaurants and chefs who've purchased plots, almost like a CSA program. "We want to provide a steady supply of chemical-free, nutrient-dense produce," says Panzarella. Restaurants including Uchi, Dish Society, Beaver's, and Oxheart have already signed on and signed up for lots of their own. Eventually, Planted Houston will also offer a traditional CSA program, with baskets available for pick-up at the farms themselves.

But equally importantly, he says, Planted Houston wants to connect parts of Houston that have rarely been interdependent on one another. "We have a huge food movement in Houston that doesn't touch these places," Panzarella says. "We want to bring these historically excommunicated neighborhoods into the fold."

To that end, Planted Houston will be giving 10 percent of everything grown in Houston Gardens, Sunnyside, Acres Homes, and other low-income areas back to the neighborhoods in which the produce is grown. Planted Houston plans on working with the Can Do Houston initiative—a non-profit that establishes healthy corner stores in food deserts and other underprivileged areas—to pick up and distribute the food. "We also want to eventually hire people in the neighborhoods," Panzarella says, as Planted Houston gains momentum.

Right now, Planted Houston is raising money to further that momentum via an Indiegogo campaign. With less than a month left in its fundraising cycle, the campaign has raised over $14,000 out of a $35,000 goal. Additional fundraisers held throughout September aim to garner even more support. Look for Planted Houston dinners and other events on September 1 at Onion Creek, September 8 at D&T Drive Inn, September 15 at Beaver's, and September 22 at the yet-to-open Public Services Wine and Whiskey.

Panzarella has no doubt Planted Houston will reach its goal, and it won't be long before the farms are tending harvests of squash, tomatoes, eggplant, fruiting trees, and blackberry bushes, as well as restaurant orders of more unusual items: native fruits like the maypop, a sort of Texas passionfruit, and Asian greens, already on order from Uchi.

"We just really want to be consistent," Panzarella says, "and have a ton of local produce."

 

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