Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Crispina ffrench: Alchemy Initiative Illuminated

Hi, everyone —

My name is Crispina ffrench. I am a recent first-time Storey author, used-clothing alchemist (see my site at, wife, mother of three, founder of Alchemy Initiative (, and, as of now, a contributor to It is exciting to have this opportunity.

To help it all make sense, I would like you to know a little about Alchemy Initiative. We are a group of four women working to develop a former church, rectory, and convent previously owned by the Roman Catholic diocese in the heart of Pittsfield, Massachusetts (we like to call it Shire City — I’ll save that story for another time).

The rectory is halfway renovated (and inhabited by like-minded collaborators) into six separate living units. Our idea is to grow healthy food on our urban property, teach workshops, and offer after-school programs on subject matter related to our mission. We plan to finish the church kitchen into a viable commercial kitchen for classes, community cooking, and rental for commercial food manufacturing. We have a reading room full of books to borrow or buy. There are artists’ studios that house my studio and a painter/jewelry maker, with others coming available in late summer. We host events that include workshops, live music, film screenings, studio sales, book signings, art openings, and readings. Our plans go on and on, but the rest can wait. Most importantly, we are collaborating with Storey Publishing on projects that seem to make sense — and there are a lot of them!

Alchemy Initiative came into being with an Earth Day event that promises to become an annual celebration. Carleen Madigan, who edited The Backyard Homestead, was on hand signing her best-selling book. We had a great crowd! There was an array of tables showcasing area businesses, including our local brewery, Pittsfield’s community garden initiative, my wares for sale, and more. There were hula hoops spinning, music, and dancing. We rang the church bell, and a meal was shared.

Our “backyard homestead” is unfolding to a pleasing and harmonious space in all our lives. Raised beds are built from storm-damaged wood that was harvested, dried, and split to make the sides. We removed sod and filled the beds with organic loam from Holiday Farm in Dalton, Massachusetts (a gift from Storey Publishing), making clean growing mix a foot deep. We are especially careful about soil replacement because of the history of General Electric’s less-than-savory way of ridding themselves of PCB waste in this fair city.

Vegetable seeds, cut and edible flower seeds, and culinary and apothecary herb seeds are growing inside until the weather warms a little more. This first year of the garden has us relying on several friendly growers who are generously providing us with most of the starts we will be planting. Paley’s Farm Market in Sharon, Connecticut, is a wonderland of unusual-variety starts and landscaping plants. Raina Weber of Project Native in Housatonic, Massachusetts, gave us a free consultation and has offered us native starts at cost, which we will be incorporating as we go. We hope to build a small greenhouse or cold frame to start seeds in for next spring and in the meantime thank everyone who has so generously supported our urban farm. We are planting the hardiest vegetables and getting a bunch of perennial transplants in the ground. For our plant placement, layout, and spacing, we were guided by Carleen Madigan’s Backyard Homestead and The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith. We hope to host Mr. Smith and other Storey authors at on-site events throughout the growing season.

Three hives of honeybees and 18 chickens will round out our Urban Farm. Bees are arriving on May 22, and the chickens will join us on June 15. Coop designs are in the works and are inspired by the information in Building Chicken Coops by Gail Damerow and Chicken Coops by Judy Pangman, both from Storey.

Chris, my husband, is our beekeeper. He has kept bees in the past and looks forward to taking that on once again. He is currently enrolled in the beekeeping intensive at Warm Colors Apiary in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.

As you can see, there are lots of projects and excitement happening here. I look forward to contributing in an ongoing way and hope you will follow along.

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