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The plot thickens

Clever planting lets a Gloucester family reap a huge harvest from just a small slice of urban land.

By Regina Cole
May 1, 2011

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For nine months of the year, Lara Lepionka, Stevens Brosnihan, and their two daughters, Willa, 8, and Beatrix, 4, eat all their vegetables directly from the garden. During the winter, they reach into their freezer for produce also grown in the yard.

The garden that grows this bounty is just 1,300 square feet of raised beds, trellises, containers, and terraces. Lepionka and Brosnihan have transformed the steep, urban lot that surrounds their Gloucester home. (Garden space, yard, and house together occupy a 10th of an acre.) As befits a proper farm, there are rain barrels, a chicken coop, and a compost pile, as well as a play area, grill, table, and chairs. Lepionka sells some of their produce, including salad greens and edible flowers, to area restaurants, an important source of family income.

“We started in 2008, when the news was especially bleak and there was a time of malaise,” she explains. “We were broke and feeling out of control. Growing our food was something we could do: Stevens had worked in nurseries and knew botanical terms, while I had sheer passion. He can build anything, and I work part time, so could fit the work into my schedule.”

She had little experience growing things but fond memories of her mother’s garden in Rockport. “I remember her saying, ‘Time to harvest potatoes,’ and, like magic, we’d find them in the dirt. It was like a treasure hunt.”

Every year, their knowledge grows. “We learned how to stagger crops, to plant just a few Swiss chard plants, to grow what costs most to buy,” Lepionka says. “We now know that we have little microclimates in specific areas.”

In a few short years, the couple have become experienced farmers. Lepionka is coordinator of the Gloucester Backyard Growers Program, an initiative of the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market, partnering with the Food Project. From a half-dozen neighbors last year, the program has grown to more than 30 participating families, as well as several elementary schools and public housing developments. There is a waiting list.

“We show that, on a very small piece of land, you can meet your own food needs, eat more nutritiously, and get huge spiritual and emotional benefits,” Lepionka says. “We are trying to create something that’s reproducible and normal – that fosters a great relationship with food.”

Regina Cole is a writer in Gloucester. Send comments to