A Garden Grows in Newark—and a Community Grows Around It

How an urban farm became an anchor for the city’s South Ward.

February 07, 2020
Volunteers weeding production rows

Mark Kearney

On a gray and chilly late-January day at the Hawthorne Avenue Farm in Newark, New Jersey, there isn’t much greenery in sight. The orchard’s 132 carefully arranged fruit trees are dormant and budless. The 240 raised beds used by members of the local community for growing vegetables and herbs lay fallow. Viewed from the opposite end of the three-acre plot, the uncovered frame of a giant hoop house resembles nothing so much as a whale skeleton, like something you might see hovering over the main lobby of a natural history museum.

But in just a few months’ time, everything will look very different, the farm’s manager, Karen Rutberg, assures me. Tomato and cucumber vines will stretch and curl around the hoop house frame. The trees will flower and then teem with peaches, pears, plums, apples, and two different types of cherries. And the beds will be bursting with collards, Swiss chard, squash, and spider plant—“but not the kind that we normally think of when we think of a spider plant,” says Rutberg. “This one is a very small-leafed edible plant that grows throughout the whole season, so you can constantly harvest from it.” Indigenous to Africa, the plant is a favorite of the many Kenyans and Nigerians who have immigrated to central Newark over the past few decades and who gladly avail themselves of the farm and its soil. They passionately tout the medicinal properties of this iron- and calcium-rich green, even though it’s also a well-known cause of homesickness.

Equal parts urban garden, community center, and outdoor school, the eight-year-old Hawthorne Avenue Farm is an oasis of pesticide-free produce in a part of Newark that easily qualifies as a food desert. (When asked where else locals can find food in the neighborhood, Rutberg gestures in the direction of a bodega one block away. “That’s it,” she says.) On nice days in spring and summer, as many as 250 people at a time might be found within its chain-link walls tending to their beds, which they can lease for $15 a growing season. On other parts of the farm or at one of the several youth farm stands it operates throughout the city, you might find college students looking to burnish the community-service credentials on their résumés working alongside men and women for whom “community service” has been recommended by a criminal court judge. Kids from neighboring schools stream in regularly to learn about the importance of sustainably managed water, soil, and crops—and, Rutberg says, to get a taste of what such practices can yield, both figuratively and literally. “I can’t tell you how many people have come here and said, ‘I’ve never had a fresh tomato,’ or ‘I don’t touch dirt.’ There’s just so little of a relationship.”

Preparing raised beds for planting

Mark Kearney

Urban community gardens have long provided greenery-deprived city dwellers with an outlet for their passion, a patch of soil in which to grow their own flowers, vegetables, and herbs. More recently, we’ve witnessed the rise of urban farms, which may share a ZIP code with the local community garden but are more likely to be larger businesses geared first and foremost toward bringing goods to market. Hawthorne Avenue Farm occupies a unique space between these two poles. As part of the Greater Newark Conservancy, and with its overall mission emphasizing education and community stewardship, it fits comfortably within the first category. But in terms of its scale and yield, it functions much more like an urban farm, one whose continued vitality depends on its ability to expand by innovating and forging new relationships. Rutberg speaks excitedly, for example, about an upcoming partnership with a major provider of school cafeteria food in northern New Jersey, a company that’s trying to bring the farm-to-table concept to schoolchildren so they can experience it for themselves.

On the day of my visit, Rutberg and farmer Mark Kearney are busy preparing the land and infrastructure for the rapid approach of spring. Rutberg shows off a new and almost-completed irrigation system that will increase the number of water “access points” (i.e., hoses) from one to seven, easing community members’ frustration over long waits to give their crops a quenching spray. I help Kearney unload wood from a van. The untreated whitewood will be used to construct a trellis that will run the full length of the orchard. Rutberg envisions it as “a beautiful border where we’ll grow flowering fruits. But it’ll clearly be a border. One of the issues we have is that some people think we’re a pick-your-own farm—which we’re not.” As we walk south, she points out a strip of 15 beds destined to be home to pollinator-friendly plants, such as milkweed, lavender hyssop, and rhododendrons. This stretch will be centrally located so that “bees will have to crisscross to find it.” The rules are very strict about what Rutberg and Kearney can and can’t have on their farm: no chickens, no fires, no cover on the hoop house, no compost, and no beehives. “But while we’re not allowed to have bees, they don’t say anything about attracting bees,” she says with a smile.

Come mid-March, locals will begin arriving once again to cultivate their seasonal plots, and new waves of school groups will convene to learn kid-friendly lessons about things like integrated pest management, perhaps in between bites of their first fresh-off-the-vine snap pea, or bread that was baked using the farm’s small field of winter wheat. Over the low roar of traffic from Interstate 78, just a hundred yards or so away, they might even hear the call of a red-tailed hawk—one of two that Kearney says he has spotted patiently surveying the farmland from above in search of mice or squirrels. And while no one will mistake this corner of Newark’s South Ward for the country, it is clear to all who visit, work, garden, and volunteer here that this place is what it set out to be: a farming community.


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