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What “soil remediation” really means…

Holy Matrimony!


10169221_10203945460347218_8560321564304534743_n   It was beautiful, the rain ceasing for a brief few hours to allow Erik and Hannah Morris to be wed under a brilliant sky of broken clouds and sunshine. A simple set-up, a tattered, multi-colored, vine laden brick wall that contrasted the sodden earth, bright straw paths leading the way to straw bale seating. I think everyone doubted a little their aspirations to get married at a first year, work in progress, urban farm just a few feet away from a highly trafficked railroad, perhaps justifiably so. But I think the couple saw something beautiful about a baby garden, perhaps a parallel to a baby marriage, where there’s room, and an absolute need to grow into the full aspirations of what’s to come. I hope in a few years they’ll take these same pictures wandering on foot paths through groves of fruit trees, talking about how crazy they were to get married in a field with only flecks of green against the brown. And they can say how far this little field has come, as well as how far they’ve come in their new journey together. All the best to the Morris’, so happy they could share their great day here.


So we had our first veggie distribution last Saturday (surprise!). We hadn’t planned on starting for another week or so but our friend Matt Callo over at Pond Gap Elementary Community Garden called me with an abundance of produce and no one to buy it (check it out: It was a simple spread, radish, romaine and snap peas, but the perfect salad combo for a May afternoon. It was wonderful to meet shareholders I had only communicated with through email or telephone and to show folks what their investment has done so far in reconciling a blighted piece of property. Soon we will be harvesting from our own grounds (although some of the snap peas distributed Saturday came from Abbey Fields!) and that will be fun and tremendous, but it’s always great to partner with our area agrarians as well. IMG_20140513_102352_101

And now for what soil remediation really means…

But to preface, (circle of honesty):

I am a “fad farmer”. A farmer who came to terms with what would be vocationally satisfying after spending loads of money on an unrelated and painfully vague degree at a liberal arts university (thanks anyway, dad). A farmer not birthed into this line of work, but instead persuaded by the host of documentaries, books and inspiring projects happening around the world. Wendell Berry was the last straw.

And of course fad farming allows you the pedestal in which to boast about why this is the best way to spend our lives. There’s the nutritional aspects, of course, and then you get deeper into the communal and neighborly aspects of it all, and then perhaps finish it off with the idea of holistic living, focusing on the healing and fulfilling aspects of nature and a hard days work. Terrifically convincing, and delightfully true. My hopes getting into this project rest heavily on the ideas of renewing a place, taking what was vacant and neglected and turning it into something vibrant and alive.

However, the nitty-gritty reality of this poetry means working with nutrient deficient, rocky, weed filled soils that have no considerations of your timeline. Soil remediation really means that you will acquire bloody knuckles when you plant lettuce and blistered palms when you till your tomato beds. It means you’ll wipe away a tear of joy when you see your stalky sunflower babies bursting through the soil, and kick the dust around your turnip tops, knowing full and well they’re not supposed to be that color.

It means wine on rainy days and too much coffee on all the others.

And while it’s frustrating, I stop short of cursing the ground. Because I know it’s all part of it, this amazing responsibility of taking care of something. Even if a vegetable is not harvested from our fields this year (which I promise shareholders, there will be!), the effort is not lost, our input of plants and amendments rolling over into the next season; our winter cover crop taking it all up to prepare a more fertile piece of ground in the years to come. I have learned an amazing amount this Spring, and am so thankful for all the support from The Abbey Fields shareholders, volunteers and well-wishers.

And to expand the scope of faces you’re familiar with at the farm, I’m going to take each blog post to feature one of our work shares. These people are amazing. I have called on them in a moments notice to work in the sleet to cover plants, asked them to cut down barbed wire laden fencing, to plant thousands of onions, and to mulch a sixth of an acre using only a wheelbarrow and a pitch fork. They show up without me asking, and encourage me by staying until the job is done.

So, Meet John

Or Johnny.

Or, onion patch Johnny. IMG_20140405_110956_569

A former professor in Wakefield NC, wrote me a letter in the beginning wanting to work and learn so that he might be able to start a garden for the poor in his own community. John is technically no longer a “work share” because he decided to buy his, wanting to give his working share status to another who wanted the opportunity, but he still puts in more hours than anyone, sometimes myself included. He’s witty, chivalrous, and dependable, and I’m thankful for his wisdom and care for others.

We’ll have distribution again tomorrow evening, this time to meet the second batch of shareholders. I believe we’ll be able to harvest our lettuce, kale and chard, and I hope to get some strawberries to the table from Care of the Earth CSA (apologies to our Saturday share folks who weren’t able to partake in this delightful treat). Stay tuned for the next community work day.




What’s with the birds?

I do love rainy days. This season especially I count on them to get caught up on some needed “correspondence” time. Responding to emails, communicating with share holders, and blogging are on the always to do list; the list that usually gets pushed to rainy days. However, I always forget that rainy days are also great days to nap, or bake muffins, or watch Netflix with the family, and suddenly my ambition is lost to a soft pillow, or numerous Wonder Years episodes. So today I’m trying my hardest to make this work. I’m sitting at my beautiful, antique desk, in a hard chair, next to a well lit window, with a cup of premium roast in my camping mug.

Let’s blog.

So we’ll start with Liz:



Liz is a canadian goose, lost, apparently. I spotted her and her partner Marv on the roof of the Standard Knitting Mill about a week and half ago. They were humorously out of place against the broken windows and industrial facade; perhaps they were resting on their way to West Knoxville, or Canada? But by the next day they had built their nest, and Liz hasn’t moved since. They will now belong in the archives of other “city birds” I’ve encountered since working on this project. City birds, I’ve found, are tough, curious, bold. They don’t fly away from crumbs when you walk by, they perch on steel cables above swift traffic. They never seem frantic or surprised, they have no where to be other than right there, peering sideways at you. The birds at the field, they’re no different. They walk behind me, picking worms as I dig holes for new plants, they may also be responsible for eating the cover crop seed that has yet to sprout on our fall field. But they do keep me company, and I’d miss the chatter if they weren’t around. Sweet Liz, stoic as a statue, unmoved by the wind and rain in her unlikely nesting place, on an open metal roof, above a dirty creek. Surely I would think this place could offer her some quiet corner, some peaceful shelter to raise her little family this spring, but I suppose she knows better than I on such matters.


IMG_20140330_130306_696      IMG_20140330_130219_053



It has been a frantic last few weeks covering and uncovering plants, studiously studying the weather forecast to see how much longer old man winter would hang on. To quote a friend of mine: “March came in like a lion, and out like catholic guilt”. The cold did manage to nip a few of our young leafy greens, but most things have weathered well. A word of advice: if you ever need to feel really good about yourself as a gardener/farmer, just grow peas. Peas will make it through anything, they grow quickly, and make a beautiful back drop when trellised. Their taproot is great for breaking up compacted soils and they hardly ever need to be watered. Peas have seen me through some tough times.

Tom Thumb lettuce, my favorite to grow.

But, this weeks forecast looks AWESOME and so it is time to plant, plant, plant. I have a tremendous amount of root bound seedlings ready to be planted and an almost empty field waiting for some color. Potatoes will hopefully be planted this week as well, along with another succession of some direct seeded crops.IMG_20140330_151150_801

We’ve begun to seed a bunch of our summer crops. Our first batch of tomatoes acquired a few of their grown up leaves this weekend. So the greenhouse, literally, smells of summer.

East Tennessee is truly magical this time of year. Roadsides become beds of wildflowers and blue stem grasses, and the hills gleam with pink and red from newly formed buds. Daffodils grace every available urban-scape and even abandoned alley ways become enchanted with ivy and low lying branches. Soon enough the lighting bugs will find their place again along the creek and folks will be occupying their front porches for conversation and good times. You have to have winter to really feel like you’ve earned these walkabouts to spring, this year especially, they’ll be all the sweeter.



To conclude this blog post I’ll end with a poem a friend showed me a few years ago, when Abbey Fields was just another conversation on the front porch of aspirations. It is, of course, by the beloved Wendell Berry, and has been a source of inspiration for me along the way.


The Wild

In the empty lot
a place not natural but wild,
among the trash of human absence, the slough and shamble of the city’s seasons,
a few old locusts bloom.
A few wood birds fly and sing in the new foliage.
Warblers and tanagers
birds as wild as leaves.
In a million each one would be rare, new to the eyes.
A man cannot make a habit of such color, such flight and singing,
But they are the habit of this wasted place.
They are its remembrance
of what it is.





Oh Spring


It is wonderful, this time of year. Especially after our last winter, and while folks still say we’re not out of the woods in regards to weather (things like lightning in February means blizzard in March), I’m done holding my breath. I’m ready to trust the daffodils and the little wrens nesting in our birdhouse.

Things are moving along at the farm. The seeds that we direct seeded a little under two weeks ago have sprouted and next week we look forward to moving some of the transplants from our very crowded greenhouse and planting them, IN THE GROUND! Last week I cover cropped a portion of the farm in white dutch clover in order to add nutrients and of course, to feed our bees, which will arrive on the farm in April.

Painting bee hives
Very crowded greenhouse






Tomorrow from 9-12 is our March community work day. We hope to clean off some of the vines from the lower walls as well as start the prep for our future flower beds. Of course, this translates into a lot of rock moving and raking, which maybe feels a whole lot like our other work days. Still, the sun will be shining and you’ll be in good company.

I wanted to attach a link that a volunteer sent to me. It’s a wonderfully insightful read and is also a great description of how Abbey Fields operates. So for those of you who have ever looked at our little farm lot with a head tilt and a “huh.” Just know we’re not the first of our kind:

004                                         Take care,





Before the cold front…

Before the cold front…

we planted!

And, we were able to till in the leaf mulch that had been left to decompose for the last month. Finally, a definitive outline of the farm:

IMG_8450[1] IMG_8449[1]

Of course, I outline everything that I’m picturing in my head in orange flags on the field, as not to forget the brilliant image of what will be. When people stop by I proudly point to these flags, thinking they see the rows of crops and the pretty flower beds illustrated by my three cent markers. I’m glad that people are kind though, really, I just need someone to nod and smile.


Sometimes I look at pictures of what this place was just a few short months ago. I still ache a little looking at all of the vegetation, the cedars and golden rod, it may not have been perfect but man, it wasn’t so stink’in brown. However, it is March, and the winds are changing just a little. Today I planted, in the ground (da da DA), beets, turnips, arugula, fennel, peas and radish. That felt really good. And while I’m not so confident in the straightness of my rows, I do feel confident that this ground is more than ready to have some cover again. I also have over 5,000 seedlings growing strong in the greenhouse, just a few more weeks until they’re able to spread their roots in this soil.

We had a share holders potluck on Saturday. It was wonderful to meet some folks, share good food and sit by the fire. I look forward to meeting more of our members as the season progresses, there will definitely be more potlucks to come.

I think that’s all for now. The weeks have been busy but I as I sit down to write I blank at what they’ve been full of. Stay warm this week, spring will be here soon.


Soil Tests!

We have received our second set of soil tests back, I wanted to post the results for all that have inquired. The first test was done back in November before we had removed the vegetation. We took about five different samples and mixed them into one, we had a normal nutrient test done as well as testing for arsenic and lead. Here are the results for that one:

BRENNA WRIGHT THE ABBEY FIELDS 13-325-0937 20131126 report_pdf_1930507-002 BRENNA WRIGHT THE ABBEY FIELDS 13-325-0937 20131126 report_secondary_1930508-002 ABBEY FIELDS NEIGHBORHOOD FARM 14-037-0544 20140214 report_pdf_1950274-006 ABBEY FIELDS NEIGHBORHOOD FARM 14-037-0544 20140214 report_secondary_1950275-006

BRENNA WRIGHT THE ABBEY FIELDS 13-325-0937 20131126 report_pdf_1930507-002

The second we had done just a few weeks ago, after we’ve tilled. We had some concern about the chemical creosote that is used to preserve railroad ties. We focused our samples towards the railroad wall and also took a few sample from within the heart of the field. The lab technician said that the dangerous chemicals in creosote are going to be arsenic and lead, but that it would also be good to look for chromium and cadmium. So, we did that and everything has come back well under the average of what normal, non toxic soils have. Here are the second round of soil tests:

ABBEY FIELDS NEIGHBORHOOD FARM 14-037-0544 20140214 report_secondary_1950275-006

ABBEY FIELDS NEIGHBORHOOD FARM 14-037-0544 20140214 report_pdf_1950274-006

I would be happy to discuss these more in depth, let me know if you have any questions!



Coming together

Our first community work day was a whole lot of this:



This guy.

I had fun. I think these folks did too. The field is still, well, brown, but it is mostly covered in leaves thanks to all the wonderful volunteers who spent their Friday morning hanging out with me.

Things are progressing nicely. Our greenhouse heater finally came in and so I’ve moved all of our spoiled seedlings out to experience the February chill. IMG_8413

I felt like they perked up just minutes after taking them outside, they look good out there gazing at the sun, and I’m relieved my guest bedroom can dry out a little.

In a few short weeks we’ll be tilling again and direct seeding our other spring crops. I’m excited to really start cleaning up the lot, moving the leaf piles to one place, tearing down dead vines and underbrush growing up in the walls, moving huge piles of brush and bricks. These are the things you don’t learn when you work on an already farm, a farm you didn’t help to start. Who can I call to come get this? Should it really cost that much? How do I make this crumbling wall look…pretty? The growing and the crop plans, the field management, you can learn all of that being an intern or hired hand. But this stuff, designing and cleaning, really making a place come from brown to beautiful, has been a delightful and slightly intimidating challenge. But we’ll add a little green sooner than later and I think that will do wonders to warm up this long winter.

It’s been a fun last few weeks, a big shout out to the Knox Composts guys as we’ll be sharing our railroad wall with their wonderful composting business. You’ve probably seen their buckets popping  up in random places, like in the food truck lot on Jackson or maybe in your friends kitchen. Check out what they’re doing and suscribe:

We still have some shares available (except for work shares). Payment plans are available (like really, really good payment plans) with deposits being due the first of March. A lot of folks have been asking what exactly you get in a half or full share. It’s hard to give a specific number as spring greens are going to far under weigh the fruit crops of summer, but to estimate, a half share is going to be anywhere from 5 to 10 pounds of produce a week and a full share will be something like 10 to 15. Hopefully that’s helpful, please feel free to contact me with any questions.

Also, thanks to all who came out to Pecha Kucha, it was a good night with good friends and interesting topics. Response for the farm was very positive (of course proposing the idea of a garden in a blighted property is not a real hard sell) and I was very  encouraged by the interest.

Hope you all are well,

Just another angle, because this was one of my favorite parts:)



Pecha Kucha

Abbey Fields will be presenting at the volume 10, Pecha Kucha night happening on Thursday at Relix Theatre in the Happy Holler district. Make it a date night or come with friends, doors open at 6 pm and presentations start at 7. Hope to see you there!

The fun part



Anyone who has ever ordered seeds, especially a large amount of them, knows how this feels. I shouldn’t be surprised, after all, just a few short weeks ago I poured over these catalogs, hand selecting varieties to start this little farm with. Southern Exposure is great in that the seeds have been tried and tested for southern climates, taking out some of the guessing work and leaving you feeling confident that the plants might actually grow the way the catalog says they will.

And so January 23 I did our first spring sowing; broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, kohlrabi, kale, collard greens, chard, mustard, onions (both bulb and bunching), cabbage, and spinach. Mid to late February we’ll do direct seedings of radish, fennel, turnips, beets, carrots and peas. Most plants we’ll plant will be preceded with additional seedings of the same so that we are sure to have spring crops for an extended amount of time. Fun stuff.



We’re working on the greenhouse, soon to be up in our back yard, but for now this is where all the growing takes place. I love walking into this muggy, tropical room, it’s a stark contrast to our heater induced dry air in the rest of the house. And the best part: Things are growing! The chard was the first to breach the soil, tiny heads uncurling for the first time under the care of our grow lights.



This Thursday is our first official work day! It promises to be the warmest,driest day of the week, and so we’ll proceed to spread the rest of the leaves on the remaining acre (it’s as big as it sounds) so come! Bring the kiddos so they can roll in the leaves, bring a metal rake, pitch fork or anything else to spread the piles. Look forward to seeing you all there.




The warm side of 25 degrees


It was 22 degrees when I got up this morning, 25 when I got to the farm. Everything shimmered with light of frozen dew, the final traces of a long, cold night. We began right where we left off yesterday, prying frosty bricks out of the frozen ground, leaving their perfect shape in the earth. It was kind of like playing tetris, backwards.

My body ached from the day before. Pushing a wheel barrow full of rock was not something I’d done in awhile, or, let’s be honest, ever I think. It was rewarding though, watching the sunset last night on a field a little less clunky. We rented a bobcat for the weekend, with a rototiller attachment in high hopes to get our seed beds somewhat ready. The bobcat rental guy was leery:

“I don’t often rent the rototiller. People tear them up.”

“I totally get it, we won’t push it.” I say

“Really, it’s only good for mixing topsoil.”

“Totally. That’s what we’re doing, pretty much.”

And so today, I unnervingly watched my boss friend bravely run the tiller through our field. He seemed un-bothered by the racket made by the small boulders hitting the guard, completely confident in the machines ability to not break. I kept my head down, and admired the fluffy soil in his wake. Killdeer birds walking with me, I hoped we hadn’t destroyed their nest.

It looks different down there. Thanks to the prior vegetation we have dirt that doesn’t really look like our normal, red clay, Tennesee dirt. It’s a good texture, full of worms and easy to work with. Tomorrow we’ll begin the process of amending. We’ll take the accumulating piles of nutrient magic (leaves) and work them into ground.

I wish you could smell this picture.

Then the following days we’ll broadcast a cover crop mixture of hairy vetch and rye to add nitrogen, suppress weeds, and continue the process of adding biomass above and below the surface.


everything rests.

I love this part. This time where biological systems take over and take advantage of the death and life of this place. Where simple leaves and dead plant matter decompose to feed the micro and macro organisms in our living soil, where the sun acts  as a catalyst for both decomposition and bringing green out of the earth. Roots meander, finding their way through tough soil and soon we’ll get to join the whole shi-bang by planting into this perfect system the food we’ll eat.  If we play our cards right (by cards I mean patience and good stewardship), this could be awesome. This resting part, where we “grow in personal simplicity while appreciating biological complexity” (Bahnson), is needed, for the ground, and also for us.

So now, after I’ve finished my Mellow Mushroom pizza and beer, I find myself in a blissful daze. My face burning from sun and cold, and my hands tired and shaky as I type. It was such a wonderful day, encouraging as people stopped by to express their support. Another shout out to Daniel with Urban Homesteaders for lending a hand today, what a guy. Come down tomorrow, spread some leaves, or sip a warm beverage and chat, either way, I look forward to meeting you.