Community

Gardens, Bees and Chickens Abound in the City

There's lots to grow in Providence

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

Providence in summer is no concrete jungle. No true asphalt metropolis has this much green. Folks around the East Side are finding it difficult to relinquish their green thumbs simply because they live in a city, and why should they? Our city has proven itself to be just as suitable a place to grow a row of kale as it is a place to grow a business.

“It’s beautiful in a crazy, lush sort of way,” Erin Abrahamsen says about her urban garden, which has really become more of a shared space. “My neighbors in an apartment next door loved to garden, too. How could I not invite them to share the space? It’s been a boon. There are currently four families that plant in the garden, although a little over half the space is mine,” she says. “Everyone pitches in; we all put the garden in together in the spring and put it to bed in the fall. We’ll often come out after work or in the evening and pick our vegetables together. We share our excesses and end up talking about why some tomatoes look better than others or what this new pest could be. On weekends that time will often turn into an impromptu barbecue.”

The space is approximately 35 feet by 35 feet, with 11 rows of peppers and squash, fennel and cotton, gourds, greens, fruits and flowers, and a two foot high fence around it – more to keep the children out than animals. Erin has even set up a system of drip irrigation, which delivers water right to the base of the plant, as opposed to traditional watering systems, which inadvertently water weeds as well. Her cucumbers grow on an old spring mattress frame bent in half, rustic wood branches have been tied together for squash and beans, and one of her neighbors is growing his tomatoes on netting, “Almost like an espalier,” she says.

“For us, it’s really provided a greater sense of commitment to our environment and community. Our garden soil is like gold,” says Erin, “It doesn’t feel like our property is a just a space on which we live. It feels more interactive.”

Erin’s advice to families considering an urban garden of their own? “Go for it! Start today. Start in a bucket if that’s all you have.”

To Bee or Not to Bee?
Less than a quarter of a mile away, on top of Eric Bilodeau and his family’s roof, bees are buzzing. Eric and his wife Cristin are actually more of these bees’ adoptive parents, haven taken over the two hives from a graduating RISD student about 12 years ago.“He sold me on the idea of adoption with the reassuring advice that, ‘They really take care of themselves, so don’t worry about the work.’ This was for the most part very accurate, unless you want to harvest honey several times a year,” says Eric.

The bees are Italian bees, a subspecies of the western honeybee, with a reputation ofhaving a gentle temperament. While Eric has never received any complaints about the bees (rather, many inquiries of interest), he knows that one of the challenges of having a hive in an urban environment is the need to locate the hive so that the beeline will not interfere with the people around it. “When we had kids, we had to relocate the hive from the backyard to the roof of the garage so that all the bees entering and exiting the hive were doing so over our heads,” says Eric. “It’s amazing to see a beeline operate. The bees determine a location of nectar gathering at the beginning of the day and the buzzing line of bees follows this highway until the end of the day. Another day, another direction.”

The traditional stack of three to four boxes is admired from the Bilodeau’s kitchen window for most of the year, and Eric has almost worked up the courage to enter the hive without his suit. In years when they get enough honey, they give out jars to their neighbors around the winter holidays. “We enjoy harvesting the honey because the taste changes every year depending on the weather, the strength of the hive, and what flowers they worked that season. It’s fun to think that you get to taste your own neighborhood,” he says.

Law-Changing Chicks
“I was in it for the eggs,” says Kate Lacouture. “But I came to find out that chickens are nice pets too!” During the day, Kate’s four Auricana chickens can be found wandering her backyard, and at night are sent to bed in a four foot by six foot enclosed henhouse. Everyone gets along in harmony; four chickens, a dog, a cat and her three sons.

“I got my chickens because my friend had chickens and she said, ‘Go ahead, get chickens; it doesn’t matter that they’re not legal in Providence, I’ve never had a problem with my chickens.’ So I did,” she says. “Then one day, I was helping her with her backyard and there were flashing lights and sirens like it was a raid. Animal control was there. They said if she didn’t get rid of her chickens by Friday, they would take them.” Kate and her friend contacted the Southside Community Land Trust, who already had a pro-chicken ordinance written, and started the process of changing the law. After several City Council meetings and an online petition and many letters of support, the ordinance was passed. Providence residents are now allowed to have up to six chickens (depending on their lot size).

“We really enjoy having the chickens,” says Kate, and the feeling is mutual. “When I go in the backyard, they run up and see me... They are happy to be near us.”

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