Stakes and The City: Discovering The Randall’s Island Urban Farm
When GC visited Randall’s Island earlier this year, their Urban Farm was still in its early spring phase– there were a few resilient herbs and not much else. Now, in the full height of summer splendor, the farm is overgrown with vegetables– an outdoor adventure in produce. Fat cucumbers poke out between leaves, watermelons rest lazily on the edge of garden beds, and bees swarm around a heaping, tangled bramble of mountain mint. The gourd tunnel has filled out, thickly and thoroughly woven with vines, while cherry tomatoes hang in tight, fragrant clusters. But perhaps the most curious aspect are the four rice paddies– the only known rice paddies in New York City– which are a somewhat eccentric feature that speaks to the farm’s desire to familiarize their visitors with the new and unexpected.
The farm– which has evolved significantly from the sensory garden it began as in 2003– is organized with learning in mind. A bed of seven different types of cucumbers is planted to highlight differences within species, as opposed to those between. Another is seeded with what grows at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, as a way of incorporating civics and history. A third is structured according to the Three Sisters method, with edamame growing in the role of beans (have you ever seen what an edamame plant looks like?).
Fat cucumbers poke out between leaves, watermelons rest lazily on the edge of garden beds, and bees swarm around a heaping, tangled bramble of mountain mint.
In this way, the farm invites learning and encourages a natural curiosity, one that anyone of any age is welcome to partake of during their Exploration Days. These open houses take place Saturdays, from May to beginning of October, between 11 AM and 3 PM. Staff members are on hand to answer questions, but it is mostly an unstructured event, evolving to suit the needs and interests of the diverse community the farm serves.
During these hours, the farm becomes a place for gardeners to exchange tips and compare techniques, just as much as it is a place where kids can haphazardly pluck a leaf of lemon verbena, crush it between their fingers, and enjoy its smell.
During the week, the garden is host to various schools and camps as an outdoor learning lab. Now about five years old, the Urban Farm’s foundational programming (which operates from mid-April through the first week of November) is organized around a day trip model, allowing the farm to have a wide reach, despite their somewhat secluded location on Randall’s Island (they served 2,500 kids last year, and are on track to serve 3,000 this year). Chefs from the city come to teach special seminars– for example, the Melotti family, who own a risotteria in NYC, donated rice from their farm in Verona for the Urban Farm to cultivate in their paddies, and now send their chefs to cook risotto with the harvested grains.
The variability the farm manages to squeeze into their irregularly shaped 40,000 square feet is quite impressive (and of course, the chickens are a big draw for Lil’ Sprouts). There’s a little something for everyone to be surprised by, and if nothing else, those who have seen everything under the sun are sure to be impressed by how delicious and fruitful a farm built on a landfill has managed to be.
To find out more about Randall’s Island and their Urban Farm, check out the farm’s website.