Knoxville Urban Agriculture Initiative Breaks Ground with Old City Gardens

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Mayor Madeline Rogero’s April 1 press release announcing an “exciting new urban agricultural initiative” in the Old City sounded like a April Fool’s Day trick. Is there even arable soil in the Old City not covered by buildings and pavement?

As it turns out, yes there is: In a lonesome corner behind Knox Rail Salvage where East Depot Avenue dead ends at the high concrete wall of James White Parkway, a little over a half-acre of land sat for years, an odd grassy area surrounded by the hardscape of downtown. The hardware store that once stood there was torn down in the mid-2000s to make way for the parkway construction. Now it’s the site of Old City Gardens, the city’s newest, and closest-to-downtown community garden, which had its ceremonial ground breaking Friday morning.

Old City Gardens is a partnership between Brenna Wright, owner of Knoxville’s flagship urban farm, Abbey Fields in Parkridge, and Old City landlords Jenny and Randy Boyd, who own the property. Inspired by the Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston, the Boyds expressed interest in starting an urban farm downtown, and connected with Wright through Jeffery DeAlejandro, chef at OliBea, the Old City breakfast restaurant that uses Abbey Fields produce in its dishes.

Wright and Abbey Fields farm manager Daniel Aisenbrey will maintain Old City Gardens in exchange for a large market garden plot. They plan to use this garden plot to grow produce to sell to downtown restaurants with a farm-to-table element. Twenty-eight 4 feet by 25 feet raised-bed garden plots are available for community gardeners to rent for $100 a year.

That price might seem steep considering most neighborhood community garden plots rent for around $10 a year, but Wright explains that Old City Gardens will have more infrastructure and management than most other community gardens. The Boyds’ plans include a pavilion, picnic tables, a washing station, two sheds with tools available for gardeners’ use, and a black chain-link fence enclosing the space. Wright says the higher price pays for this infrastructure, higher downtown property taxes, the water used, and regular garden maintenance. Also, Abbey Fields’ staff will often be available on site to help community gardeners with farming advice. All renters’ fees go back into maintaining the garden.

For the Boyds, the garden is not a straight-up money-making venture, but more an effort to provide a pleasant destination, and the opportunity for urbanites to grow a few of their own vegetables and flowers. Randy Boyd (who also happens to be the state’s Commissioner of Economic and Community Development) says he hopes the gardens will allow people living downtown to “hang out in a tranquil place, enjoy the community, and become a stronger community for it.”

This sentiment ties in with development-supported agriculture, a concept gaining ground among real estate developers that an urban farm is an attractive feature for residents and makes an area more desirable. With the current redevelopment of Regas Square into condos and retail, the newly opened music venue Mill and Mine, and the recently renovated White Lily Flats nearby, Depot Street may soon by a lively corridor of upscale life and commerce.

Wright believes people living in lofts and condos downtown with limited access to greenspace may value the garden experience more than residents of the country or suburbs. She envisions downtown dwellers walking over to visit in the mornings, coffee in hand, checking out the plants, speaking with the gardeners, and experiencing a little piece of verdant agricultural land, a rarity in their urban setting.

Old City Gardens continues the goal of the Rogero administration to establish urban farms for personal use and profit, in an effort to remove blight, use land wisely, and provide fresh, local food. Last spring, City Council passed new zoning ordinances drafted by the Office of Sustainability, establishing zoning regulations to facilitate urban farms and gardens.

“It hasn’t been easy, some people were against urban agriculture, if you can believe it,” Rogero says. She adds that Old City Gardens will be a positive model for doubters to get a better understanding of what an urban farm can be.

Speaking of doubters, some people in the community raised concerns over possible soil contamination, a problem encountered by the Birdhouse Community Garden in Fourth and Gill. Wright says the next step for Old City Gardens is getting the soil tested for heavy metals. The big three they will test for—mercury, lead, and arsenic—can contaminate food grown in the soil.

Wright, who studied soil science at UT, does not expect to find contaminated soil on the site. She says the history of the land does not raise any red flags that would indicate the presence of high levels of toxins—no house with lead paint, no petrol station. Instead, a brick-and-mortar building was torn down, and fill dirt was trucked in.

If unacceptable levels of toxins are found, Wright says they can be removed through low-impact, low-cost methods of bio-remediation. Farm managers would plant deep-rooted non-food crops like sunflowers and native grasses that draw up heavy metals into their foliage, which can then be mowed and removed. In this scenario, Wright says Old City Gardens would exist as an area of beautification and research, demonstrating the possibility of land remediation through natural practices, sticking with the goals of building community and restoring the health of the soil.

The farm managers hope to open Old City Gardens this spring. To rent a plot, contact Brenna Wright at abbey-fields.com/old-city-gardens.

Contributing Writer

Eleanor Scott's Possum City explores our urban forests, gardens, and wild places, celebrating the small lives thriving there. A freelance writer and columnist, she also maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.

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