A nondescript house stands, lonely, across Chapel Hill Rd. from the Lakewood Shopping Center -- with, curiously to many, an aging greenhouse in its rear, an oddity in what's today a dense urban neighborhood.
In many ways the greenhouse's sad state reflects that of the strip mall across the street, which just lost the Durham P.D.'s District 3 substation, and which stands a single Food Lion away from economic obsolescence.
Life was once kinder to greenhouse and shopping center site alike. Early in the twentieth century, the strip mall was home to the Lakewood Amusement Park, the last destination on the young Bull City's then-functioning streetcar line, and home to thrill rides and midway fare for young and old alike.
Across the street, the greenhouse was one of five so standing at the site of Roll's Florist; Rudy Roll had been the favored florist of Brodie Duke, whose wife was so enamored of Roll's skills that the Dukes reportedly provided the seed funding for the young business.
It was a business that drew visitors to Lakewood across the street, to wander the greenhouses perhaps, and to buy flowers. (Word has it that the Rolls were the leading provider of flowers to patients at Duke University Hospital.)
The shop closed in the 1970s, according to Gary's account at Endangered Durham, and four of the five greenhouses today stand lost to their foundations.
Only a single structure remains -- and it stands to find a new use later this year that will bring it back to active agricultural activity. And that use is one that promises to bring real cost, and health, benefits back to Durham neighborhoods.
Jeff Ensminger -- a Durhamite for three decades, a one-time Chapel Hill and Raleigh restaurateur whose dishes were a favorite of local scion Frank Kenan, and the man behind catering business "A Wandering Feast" -- last week signed a lease to use the greenhouse and adjacent structures as the nucleus of his urban garden plan.
"We feel good about the fact that we’re coming in at a time when others are leaving that area," Ensminger notes.
His is an idea adapted from his long relationship with Cuba, an island that manages to feed eleven million citizens through a system of urban gardens like the one the chef has proposed for Lakewood.
Regular BCR readers are certainly familiar with the discourse over urban chickens, which hit inboxes and City Council throughout the last few months. Central to the interest in backyard hens was the idea of a lawn-based food source, inexpensive eggs and meat available to homeowners in bad economic times or good.
If backyard hens can become a source of protein, think of urban gardens as the fruits, vegetables, and herbs you need to accompany them.
Ensminger's vision is a network of backyard gardens, maintained by individuals personally responsible for them; raised bed gardens cast in cedar would hold and nurture plant material that could sprout with vegetables and other edibles over time.
Where does the greenhouse come in? As a place for Ensminger and his team to nurture plants from seedlings until they reach a stage of maturity sufficient for them to be transplanted to these backyard gardens.
"We’re not stuck in a three-month cycle waiting for everything to turn to fruit, the greenhouse is in production," Ensminger told BCR in a recent interview. "The greenhouse has the production capability of twelve thousand to fifteen thousand plants. Theoretically every thirty to forty-five days we have the capability to turn plants around from the greenhouse to raised beds," he added, noting that this also allows for young plants to be grown year-round through the climate-protected structure.
Ensminger sees the greenhouse as the center of a system that includes local jobs for individuals interested in sustainable agricultural, perhaps local youth who graduate from programs like S.E.E.D.S.' urban agriculture program. These individuals would help residents to establish their urban gardens, and to train residents on how to maintain their structures.
The program would also construct and sell the cedar raised beds to be used for backyard gardens.
Or frontyard gardens, as Ensminger notes his hope that the commingling of food-bearing plants, herbs as ground cover, and flowers like perennials can provide aesthetic as well as financial and nutrition benefits.
"It's more of a chef's approach to artfully laying out a garden," says Ensminger. "People eat with their eyes."
Ensminger remembers during his early years in Durham the presence of neighborhood grocery stores and even produce trucks that would make the circuit, both making healthy foods available locally, without one needing a car to schlep over to big grocery stores like -- well, like the Food Lion right across from his new urban garden digs.
"Those things existed in Durham, and this effort could promote a small version of that," he notes, estimating that an urban backyard garden could save a family $1,000 to $3,000 a year in food costs.
The chef-cum-community organizer expects the urban garden center will make plant materials and supplies available at a sliding-scale cost based on income, and hopes to get seed funding (no pun intended) from the City and non-profits to allow subsidization of such gardens fully for families most in economic need.
And there are plenty of spin-off possibilities, too. Ensminger sees a chance to partner with Neighborhood Improvement Services to take re-usable plant materials from the yards of houses slated for demolition, to be re-used in other areas; to link up with groups like Habitat for Humanity to provide sustainable gardens in homes and affordable neighborhoods; and to try to provide sources of organic compost for gardens, an irony for a city where yard waste is currently trucked to Virginia after a relatively notorious yard waste fire some years ago.
Ensminger is active in the Quality of Life committee effort targeting Southwest Central Durham, and QOL's sustainability committee has been working on the plan since the fall. The program will also be under discussion by the Neighborhood PRIDE Alliance at their meeting tonight. SWCD, Northeast Central Durham, and Southside/St. Theresa's are three of the neighborhoods targeted for initial gardens.
He hopes to support one hundred urban gardens in the program's first year, and expects that the greenhouse will be up and running by summer.
Ensminger notes a capital campaign will be launched to support the effort, and that donations can be made at any time via the project's web site.