Repairing the Land on Java Street

The mushroom experiment begins

Greenpoint, Brooklyn sits on top of an estimated 17 million to 30 million gallons of oil (read about it here and here), so starting a community garden in the neighborhood requires more than just tossing some seeds into the ground and reaping a quick harvest. Despite all we’ve done over the last 150 years or so to pollute the environment and make it as inhospitable to anything but concrete and industry as possible, despite all we’ve done to shape nature to our will, to make all aspects of our lives more synthetic and artificial, there are still natural ways to begin to repair some of this damage.

On Sunday at the Java Street Garden Collaborative (at Java Street between West Street and Franklin Street) we continued the work of repairing our land through phytoremediation, which is the process by which plants clean the soil by removing heavy metals and other contaminants as they grow. These plants cannot be kept after harvest. Instead, they must be disposed of as toxic waste, and in their wake, these toxic plants leave behind cleaner soil.

Along the front fence of the Java Street Garden, a row of sunflowers has already been planted to begin doing the work of purifying the soil. There is a raised bed near the entrance with tomatoes and basil growing in it; on Sunday we also transplanted some thyme into this bed. With toxic soil (and in trying to operate on public land that could be turned into a housing development by the city at any moment, although that seems unlikely considering how long this lot has been vacant), raised beds tend to work best — both as a way to grow above instead of in the toxic soil and as a way to be portable and versatile if we have to move. Of course, this requires bringing in extra soil in which to grow plants, but we have no choice here. So we have stacks of tires and milk crates, all of which can be lined with tarp, filled with soil, and then used to grow food.

Today, in our task of repair we added some mushroom spores along the western edge of the garden, which gets the least sunlight throughout the day. Mushrooms like to be in a dark, wet place, and this part of the garden seemed most hospitable. We dug three holes about six inches deep and placed the spores into the holes. Mushrooms also grow best when surrounded by fibrous materials like wood chips, but apparently coffee grounds work just as well. We were able to get free coffee grounds from Brooklyn Label on Franklin St. (to operate a community garden it helps to know how to forage effectively in the neighborhood, whether for coffee grounds, tools, or anything – tires, milk crates, pallets –  that has a remote chance of being turned into a raised bed). We buried the spores in the holes with coffee grounds instead of soil, and then placed milk crates on top of the three spots to ensure optimal darkness. This is an experiment, and the mushrooms may thrive here, spread their roots and clean the soil in the process. Or, they may not take at all. Either way, this moves us closer to turning this lot into a thriving garden.

Out of the 596 acres of vacant public land in Brooklyn surveyed by the organization 596 Acres, there are four lots to which the public has access, and Java Street Garden is one of the four. Instead of sitting there unused and neglected, there are now sunflowers and mushrooms doing the work of cleaning the soil. Instead of keeping the community out, the garden now welcomes the community inside its gates. There are people from the neighborhood now clearing away the weeds, looking to make this lot more beautiful, slowly but surely turning vacant land into a bountiful garden, restoring the soil and at the same time restoring a sense of common purpose as we stand together on Java Street with shovels and rakes and visions of a harvest.

Tomatoes in a raised bed near the entrance

Sunflowers along the front fence

Mushroom spores before being buried by the coffee grounds on the right




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