IN the shadows of the elevated tracks toward the end of the No. 3 line in East New York, Brooklyn, with an April chill still in the air, Denniston and Marlene Wilks gently pulled clusters of slender green shoots from the earth, revealing a blush of tiny red shallots at the base.
Growing up in rural Jamaica, the Wilkses helped their families raise crops like sugar cane, coffee and yams, and take them to market. Now, in Brooklyn, they are farmers once again. Their return to farming began in 1990 when their daughter planted a watermelon in their backyard. Before long, Mrs. Wilks, an administrator in the city’s Department of Education, was digging in the yard after work. Once their ambition outgrew their yard, she and Mr. Wilks, and neighbors, received permission to use a vacant lot across from a garment factory at the end of their block.
They cleared it of trash and tested its soil with help from GreenThumb, a Parks Department gardening program. They found traces of lead, so to ensure their food’s safety, they built raised beds of compost.
They wanted their crops to be organic, a commitment they shared with many other farmers in this grimy landscape. They planted some marigolds to deter squirrels; they have not had rat problems, which can plague urban gardens; and they abandoned crops, like corn, that could attract rodents. They put up fences to thwart other pests — thieves and vandals — and posted signs to let people know that this was a garden and no longer a dump.
They took advantage of city composting programs, got free seedlings from GreenThumb and took courses on growing and selling food from the City Farms project at the local nonprofit Just Food. “The city really has been good to us,” Mrs. Wilks said. “All of the property we work on, it’s city property.”
The Wilkses now cultivate plots at four sites in East New York. Last year the couple sold $3,116 in produce at a market run by the community group East New York Farms.
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