Case Studies 

Learning from the RADIX Center

Learning about the Radix Center is a lesson in balance: for every potential for waste, every strike against the environment, this non-profit educational urban farm chalks up a thoughtful antidote.

Need water? Rig a discarded satellite dish over a barrel to collect rainwater. Need chicken feed? Take in food scraps from the nearby Capital City Rescue Mission for free feed. Need to dig into hard dirt? Plant daikon radishes, known as “bio drills” for their amazing ability to break up soil. Everything is planned, down to Maple the friendly dog, who helps children overcome their fear of dogs.

Where a gas station stood on Grand Street in Albany’s South End has sprung Radix, which should not be confused with a community garden. Radix is a one-acre farm that teaches “ecological literacy” mainly to youth, said director Scott Kellogg, who began Radix in 2009.

Here, children learn the basics of where food comes from, through demonstrations that easily explain the much bandied about word “sustainability.” Central to its mission is to show in practical ways that environmental stewardship is rewarded with better health, wholesome food and strong communities.

That demonstration began with Radix digging up 90 percent of the asphalt several years ago and replacing it with raised beds, an orchard, a coop and run. This excavation, in addition to the plantings and a 2,600- gallon greenhouse cistern, has reduced storm water runoff by 40 percent during a typical rainfall. A bank of plantings further prevent run-off before it hits the sidewalks and streets.

In the greenhouse, children see a natural food cycle through the educational and fun aquaculture demonstration. Living in tanks of cycling water, koi provide the fertilizer to nourish watercress, which Radix sells to the City Beer Hall for $20 per pound. While Radix is a non-profit, it does teach economic lessons to future entrepreneurs who may want to make a living through sustainability measures. Radix’ 41-cent egg represents pure profit, since feed is free; shitake and oyster mushrooms – easy and affordable to cultivate, sell for $12 a pound; organic heirloom tomatoes could sell for $1 each.

Radix uses its approximately $50,000 annual budget to empower people in the quest to promote healthy food, grown sustainably. Radix, working with fellow human service organizations A-Village and Trinity Alliance, helps maintain seven community gardens, established on former vacant lots in the South End. These entities also collaborated on nutrition classes and the South End Healthy Market. Some 1,200 people have trained through the Regenerative Urban Sustainability Training (RUST). And, keeping its focus on youth, Radix runs summer and fall employment programs.

Ellie Irons Art Concept 

To one talented artist, a vacant lot is not at all vacant. Rather, it is a place where nature abounds, unfettered by manicured lawn or the cement and steel of buildings. Looking past shredded old plastic bags and litter, artist and ecologist Ellie Irons sees a wild urban park, providing habitat and promoting biodiversity.

Put that way, it’s easy to understand why Irons is fascinated by these “informal green spaces,” even if her interest in unintentional plants -- weeds -- is at odds with our impulse to cultivate. Irons also mines these spaces for the pigments these plants produce; she uses these in turn to create maps, drawings and field guides.

She envisions exploring what light stewardship could mean, where weeds like goldenrod and milkweed and shepherd’s purse grow alongside raised beds for plant experiments, with creative mowing and paving stones directing visitors through the space. Here, visitors through educational markers and signs would learn to appreciate the space for what it is, a wild urban park that has a job to do, hosting milkweed, the only food for the caterpillar of the Monarch butterfly, or the nearly indestructible dandelion, an early bloomer supporting bees and, after going to seed, goldfinches and house sparrows. This stubborn greenery holds much to appreciate.

Irons’ theme aside, the base design of this lot would provide a good foundation for other public art and planting projects, where art as a focal point is surrounded by native plantings and trees, such as dogwood or redbud.

Joann Morton - Callie's Garden

Most summer evenings, JoAnn Morton gets home from work as soon as she can, walks her dog, and fills five-gallon jugs with water. If her ten-plus year-old garden car is working, she takes that. If not, she uses a wheelbarrow to haul the water to her plants – in three of the eight vacant lots she owns between Elizabeth and Clinton streets.

 

The showpiece is Callie’s Garden, an airy oasis along a block of Fourth Avenue where a home after home is vacant, barricaded and in stages of decay.

 

With its wooden arbor and flower beds at the street front, and the absence of any gates or locks, the garden is packed with raised beds - 19 in all - thick with collards, kale, tomatoes, spinach, corn and zucchini. Picnic tables at the rear provide a place to discuss gardening with the kids who come by. Morton is happy when they do. But she most enjoys the time alone.

 

“I don’t want to start a program,” she explained gently as she surveyed the space she named for her late mother. “It’s a hobby. At the same time, it’s a way to help.” Morton grew up on a 200-acre farm in Arkansas where her family grew its food. She graduated from college, came to Albany in the mid-1980s with her husband, Morris, and raised two children. She works as an IT Specialist with the state Office of Information Technology Services, is active in neighborhood groups and her church. But Morton has always made time to grow things on plots of green space on the streets near her house. The couple bought their first city lot in 1990. Then, they got into the habit, bidding $1000 to $2500 on properties through Albany County and the Albany County Land Bank.

 

They cultivate an astonishing bounty: coy fish, apricot trees, exotic herbs, strawberries, purple hull peas and collards that wind up on Thanksgiving tables throughout the neighborhood. In winter, they shovel the sidewalks at their properties so people can walk safely. They even donated a lot to the Land Bank, adjacent to other Land Bank-owned properties. “I thought it would complement future development or open space,” she explained. But claiming vacant lots is as much a preemptive move as a civic one. All around them, homes crumble. They are torn down and leave behind rough scraps of property that pile up with trash or become impenetrable thickets. “I wanted to have control over the space around me,” she explained. When the house next door was demolished, the Mortons purchased the empty lot. Likewise, the lot behind them, and the one kitty corner, the site that is now Callie’s Garden. “When the house in back was torn down, we bid on the lot,” Morton recalled. “The neighbor who had owned the house came by and said ‘why are you cutting my grass?’ “Unfortunately for him he lost his property through county foreclosure. The process did not allow him to re-acquire it through auction unless he paid the delinquent taxes. This is the sad part of acquiring property, when you have to say ‘it’s my property now.”’ She accepts the inevitability of this sad cycle.

 

The house next to Callie’s Garden hasn’t been occupied in years. The bricks are flecked with holes and invasive trees grow through the back steps. In time, a bulldozer might create yet another vacant lot. But Morton doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about all that is going wrong. To her, the empty lots tell the story of what is next. And often, it starts with children. Drawn by the sight of her with her wheelbarrow, they’ll drop by to weed, pick up litter and build raised beds. The helpers can be so enthusiastic she needs to instruct them to go home when it’s getting dark. Sometimes, she gives them seeds, or plants to put into the ground. “A lady in her car once stopped me and said ‘Are you the lady in the garden? Do you have any more strawberries? My kids see other kids with plants in the backyard and they want some,’” recalls Morton, known as “Miss JoAnn.” At one of her sites a neighbor said she liked cabbage, so Morton put cabbage in; another requested carrots. She has given over a bed or two to individuals eager to grow cabbage or tomatoes. Some have been overzealous and wound up with far more than they bargained for. Others have lost interest when the weeds surfaced. Morton has encountered strangers filling shopping bags with her collards. There are seasons when she doesn’t get to sample her own watermelon or corn because so many people help themselves.

 

But even in these indiscretions she sees her rows of plants connecting anonymous neighbors, and connecting them with nature. When an arbor disappeared from one plot and when city demolition trucks tore up rows of her plants on another, neighbors have come to her and said, “I can’t believe they messed up our garden.’ “They keep an eye out. They’re good people and I wouldn’t know them without the gardens.” Morton is emphatic on this point. And she keeps track of how others are using vacant property to redraw the neighborhood. During a brief tour, she pointed to well-tended grassy space next to a row of buildings that appears to give the street some breathing room. One spring morning, Morton snapped a picture of a just-mowed lawn with a white party tent set with white cloth-covered chairs and matching white table clothes. She gave no thought to what had once been there, preferring to form a picture in her mind of what was happening: “These ladies were probably planning an elementary school graduation party. And maybe they couldn’t have afforded to rent the space. But having the empty space brought out their creativity. “I’d rather see empty lots than an empty, boarded house,” she added. “What can you do with an empty, deteriorating, boarded house? Nothing, but watch it fall apart. With an empty lot you can do something. You can cut the grass, plant some vegetables and see what happens.”