Fresh, free food spills through the slats of the iconic multi-colored fence at 4th Street Farm, a three-year old oasis of beauty, hope and health in Lexington’s East End neighborhood. Why garden in a narrow, one-tenth acre lot in an urban neighborhood? For longtime east-enders Geoff and Sherry Maddock –– gardeners by birth, training, and experience –– it’s a matter of mission, faith, and repairing the world.
Fourth Street Farm started with two kinds of fire. The literal fire came first. “I was sitting in a neighborhood meeting in October 2009, when someone came in the back and said, ‘the house next to yours is on fire,’” said Sherry Maddock.
The building, a purple cinderblock fourplex at 264 E. Fourth Street in Lexington’s East End neighborhood, burned beyond repair. Next door, at the corner of Elm Tree Lane and E. Fourth, the Maddocks’ 129-year-old house and its serene, productive 5-year-old kitchen garden survived without damage.
Sherry and her husband, Geoff, watched the ruins from their side windows as the second fire, the figurative one, began to spark.
“I was reading ‘Farm City’ and burning with ideas about what we could do next door,” Sherry said, referencing Novella Carpenter’s groundbreaking description of raising animals and vegetables in abandoned space in Oakland, Calif.
In 2010, a family member of the couple bought the one-tenth acre lot and burned out building next door to the Maddocks’ home, and invited Geoff and Sherry to use it for good. After observing and planning for nearly a year, in 2011 they planted the first crops. The tiny “demonstration garden” now showcases a bounty of flowers and edible plants, from herbs and tomatoes to fruit trees and asparagus.
The Maddocks’ decision to add “urban farmers” and “micro-enterprise developers” to their resumés stemmed, in part, from Wendell Berry’s teachings about forming deep roots and forging lasting bonds of affection in one’s community. Guided by their chosen principles of generosity and hospitality, the couple already regularly hosted neighbors at their table for dinner or cups of tea; they also spent their energy helping find health care for the ill and injured and helping refugees solve seemingly impossible problems. Showing their neighbors how to grow their own food and make income from food production seemed a useful next step.
Sherry, a trained Fayette County Master Gardener, and Geoff, who grew up on an Australian dairy farm, met at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., where each completed a master of arts in mission studies. Living a life of loving service to their East End neighbors became their own mission.
Today, 4th Street Farm thrives as a privately owned, publicly welcoming example of urban food production and environmental stewardship. Its roots draw physical nourishment from rich Bluegrass soil and spiritual strength from the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam, translated as “repairing the world.”
“We choose to see that God is at work mending the universe, particularly in the garden, and especially when that garden is located where a burned, abandoned building used to be,” Sherry said.
Starting with a cleared, empty plot, and curious about how to expand from gardening to farming, the Maddocks studied permaculture, a framework for using nature’s principles to produce food, care for the environment, and live well on the earth. One of permaculture’s main tenets suggests, “Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place.”
Aerial 4th Street Farm photo by Geoff Maddock.
The busy corner of Elm Tree Lane and East Fourth Street serves as a noteworthy Lexington edge.
“We live at an intersection,” Geoff said. “Most people would see this busy corner as a liability; we see the goodness of the intersection.”
With visibility on two sides, the garden invites neighbors and others in the community to come and go. According to Geoff, the set-up encourages gleaning berries and other food along the edges, as well as conversation across the fence.
“It’s not just where we live,” he added. “Our very being becomes intersection.”
The narrow city lot serves as a living laboratory for discovering what will thrive in a small urban space. Where water naturally finds its own way into the northeast corner, a rain garden flourishes, complete with water-loving trees and plants. Beehives and a handsome chicken coop join permanent plantings of vegetables, herbs, and fruits around the edges of the lot, leaving the center for raised beds of strawberries, vegetables, and pollinator-friendly plants. The multi-colored fence facing Fourth Street and beautiful, painted wood signs by Pat Gerhard, owner of the N. Limestone coffee and gift shop Third Street Stuff, signal the farm’s welcoming ways.
“This farm has schooled us on generosity and hospitality,” Sherry said. “We learned that we had to be hospitable to bees, for example. They need the blooms of parsley, carrots, dill, Echinacea.” Sherry added that the urban chickens, housed in coops on the property, provide plenty of eggs to share with neighbors and friends. “One seed produces many fruits,” she said.
The Maddocks intend for 4th Street Farm’s impact to extend to helping neighbors develop food-based micro-enterprises. Neighbors can learn how to use their own small urban spaces to cultivate and sell high-demand food crops like raspberries, which, being hard to ship, work perfectly as hyper-local crops.
Born in flames, 4th Street Farm now illuminates what happens when people work with nature in a partnership for good. Sherry notes that a thoughtful, knowledgeable person can plant a specific tree in a specific spot and accomplish wonders.
“Sustainability, environmentally critical initiatives, and food can all be the same thing — a fruit tree on the corner of the city block gets to do all those things,” she said. “It produces food, filters water, cleans our air, provides shade, and absorbs heat.”
That’s repairing the world.