Ryan Lee lives in a comfortable University Park home in Arlington, surrounded by other houses.
Which is why visitors are surprised to see his farm. Not just a garden ... a farm.
During spring growing season, he has all sorts of vegetable plants to tend. And starting this year, he has sold the bounty at a stand, a welcome offering to people who come upon it as they drive down University Club Boulevard. Everything is freshly picked — he picks on Saturdays and sells on Sundays It’s all organic. And it’s a strange site in a city neighborhood — a true urban farm.
With the spring growing season pretty much over, he’s taken down the sign that advertises his Edible Acres. He’s taking a break for a few weeks before his fall crops are ready — broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, beets, turnips, kale, onions and garlic.
Still, the other day, a customer came by his home and asked about watermelons. He walked across the street to his farm and found a couple.
“It doesn’t get any fresher than this. I live in an apartment so I can’t really grow anything,” said Gary Fryer, an Arlington resident who doesn’t live too far from the University Park area.
Lee, an 18-year Navy man, is a city dweller who loves to farm. He started growing things in his backyard, but it wasn’t long before he outgrew the space. That’s when an abandoned lot across the street caught his attention.
He noticed citations from the city, posted because of a lack of upkeep, and that gave the 37-year old an idea.
He looked up the owner based on tax records and made a proposition.
Lee told the owner that he would cut the brush and take care of the property if he let him grow some items on it.
It was a deal.
“My whole backyard is a garden,” Lee said. “Then I ran out of room. Then I went to the community garden, but I ran out of room over there, too.”
So he expanded his “garden” to the neighboring property and had so much success that he wanted to spread his bounty. So he began selling the produce to neighbors and other visitors — a farm stand right in the middle of a city neighborhood.
Amy Donaldson is new to Arlington. She said with Lee’s organic farm just minutes away, she no longer has to trek across the Mathews Bridge to get fresh produce.
On a recent day, she left with onions, Swiss chard and sweet onions that she planned to cook that night for dinner.
“It’s awesome,” she said.
For Lee, the farm has become a convenient hobby — and a lot of work. He learned early on that the soil here isn’t ideal. He said it doesn’t hold water or nutrients.
“I’m constantly working to improve the soil. I’m constantly driving around the neighborhood picking up leaves,” he said.
He maintains his own compost pile of leaves, a few vegetables and an egg shell or two. He’s growing sorghum grass now, which he thinks will help make the soil less sandy.
He’s also putting in a well because a recent water bill hit $270.
Next to his house, he has a storage shed that he’s outfitted for his needs. It’s air conditioned to help keep the produce fresh and there are lamps to help cultivate his seeds.
The self-taught farmer, who reads and keeps in touch with the county extension office, said he’s learned a lot of lessons from his half-acre lot. Some fortunate, some unfortunate.
He had planned to grow tomatoes this spring, for instance, but a fungus destroyed his crop.
He’s proud that he has some vegetables that are harder to find at a neighborhood grocery store, like pattypan squash.
He also gives back. Everything he doesn’t sell, he takes to the Clara White Mission, Lee said.
Though still in his 30s, Lee already has his eyes set on retirement. His urban farm is great practice; in 2½ years, he’s planning to move his family, which includes his wife and two children, to Indiana to a 30-acre farm he bought just for retirement.
He hopes to do what’s known as community-supported agriculture there. Customers will pay him $500 a year and, in return, they’ll get a basket of whatever fresh vegetables are available during the growing season.
But that’s in the future. Right now, Lee is enjoying his time at his Arlington farm.
“I get to work with my hands and machines. Look what I produced,” he said. “How many people in this world are producers anymore.“