Archive for January 2014

Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, Zinc, and Arsenic...Oh My!

By jess.

Here is more great work from our summer intern Talia!

We're dedicating this blog post to a discussion about potential soil contamination in urban areas. It's an issue that should NOT stop you from gardening in the city, but is good to be aware of. Here is the problem. Previous building practices and historic chemical additions to gasoline have left some soils contaminated with toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc, arsenic, and petrochemicals. Lead gets the most attention, and that’s what this page will focus on, but best to be aware of the other chemicals as well. You can get your soil tested for some of the more common contaminants by sending soil samples to your local agricultural extension. For Bostonians, that is UMass Amherst. Simple instructions are here. Keep in mind that while soil tests look for many contaminants, they do not work for contaminants such as petrochemicals. We suggest investigating your soil history to find out what used to be built on your land.

Now, it’s time to focus on Lead…

Why should you care?
Lead is a terrible problem in the urban environment, as 82% of urban soils have elevated levels. It poses the highest risk to children, because kids tend put dirty hands in their mouths increasing exposure and lead impacts mental development.

But wait! You can still garden!
Gardening in the city is still a great idea, but we want you to do so in an informed manner. The following list is especially designed for dealing with a lead problem, but these suggestions will help with other contaminants too:

1. Garden in Raise Your Beds
Many benefits come with using raised beds. The best is peace of mind that you brought in soil from a safe source. Remember that plant roots reach pretty deep, so line the bottom of your bed with landscaper’s fabric. To construct the raised bed, use untreated wood. Cedar is great because it naturally repels termites, albeit it's pricy.

2. Wash Your Vegetables
Plant root cells are way better at filtering out heavy metals than our own bodies. Minute amounts of the lead present in the soil solution will find its way to the fruit of the plant. The real danger comes from dust that coats the outside of your vegetables. It’s tempting to eat vegetables or fruit right off the plant after a quick wipe on your shirt, but you should actually wash them. In fact, don’t just wash the vegetables from your garden; always wash your fresh produce, even if it’s organic.

3. Use Ground Cover on High Lead Areas
If you know certain areas of your yard contain contaminated soil, make sure you plant grown cover plants. Plant roots hold on to soil, keeping dust from blowing into the air, your raised beds and your lungs. This article is a great resource for native Massachusetts groundcovers.

A Note on Phytoremediation and its Effectiveness:
In phytoremediation, plants extract contaminants from the soil, and then the gardener simply gets rid of the contaminated plants. Sounds easy, right? Not quite. Phytoremediation is an innovative idea, but it needs work. As mentioned previously, plant roots are good at filtering out contaminants when they absorb nutrients from the soil solution. Furthermore, certain heavy metals like lead tend to bind to soil particles and do not easily dissolve into the soil solution. Only a few plants, called “hyperaccumulators,” will actually translocate the contaminants from the soil solution into their leaves, but these plants tend to not produce much biomass. Scientists are currently researching ways to trick non-hyperaccumulator plants, which do not naturally absorb contaminants but do produce a lot of biomass, to start accumulating. These tricks include adding inducers like chelates, which attach to chemicals and make them soluble, so plants will absorb the contaminants. In general, lowering pH increases the amount of Lead in the soil solution, so citric acid works pretty well too.
If you want to try out phytoremediation, then go for it. However, many gardeners mistakenly believe that after one season of growing geraniums, mustard, or collard, their soil will be good to go. Not true! Without any inducing agents (chemicals that make contaminants soluble) phytoremediation happens way too slowly. As a home gardener, phytoremediation is not the solution for a lead problem.

Philadelphia does Yardsharing: Part 4

By lawrence.

Philadelphia does Yardsharing: Part 4

Grounded in Philly


In 2011, Amy Laura Cahn started working with the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI) to provide legal support to community farmers. While she was at meetings, she repeatedly heard complaints about legally accessing land in Philadelphia. The city tacitly accepts that people garden on vacant land, but it has not committed to any legal programs to help people attain the land, and at most they can get year-long licenses. Gardeners wanted a feeling of security. Amy began to collaborate with Paula Segal from 596 Acres, a program in New York City that collected data on land use and put it in a map for New Yorkers to use. Working with 596 Acres and funding from Merck Family Fund, the Garden Justice Legal Initiative developed Grounded in Philly in 2012. 

In our conversation, Amy Cahn emphasized that availability of land data in Philadelphia is very different than in New York City. In New York City, there is one comprehensive, mapped data set. Philly, on the other hand, has several, scattered data sets. The great part about Philadelphia’s land data is its transparency to the public, but the different sources do not always match up. Eric Brelsford, Grounded in Philly’s developer, wrote a code to aggregate the data in an interactive map. Initially, the application consisted of two pieces of information: one to show people what land is vacant and the other to locate where gardening is happening. As Grounded in Philly advanced, they realized that there were more needs they could meet by providing further information. For each plot of land on the map, they added information such as the availability for sale or license and status of the tax debt. Never before was all of this knowledge available in one place. They also started asking people on the ground to check on the lots and make sure their status on the website matched their actual current use.

Current Status

Currently, Grounded in Philly (GIP) provides resources to help gardeners legally obtain land in Philadelphia’s climate of inconstant rules. Members of GIP advise gardeners through a variety of mediums: online, over the phone, and even in person.
Grounded in Philly was conceived relatively recently (2012), and is rapidly changing to fit needs. The website has a lot of information, so the team is making the design more user-friendly. This new design would highlight the core functions of locating current garden sites and available vacant lots. The team is also adding some nuanced functions that will make the site more effective and integrated. For example, they hope to pull in data about sheriff sales, who owns each vacant lot, and (more ambitiously) they hope to find locations of underutilized public land, or city-owned land that the government might make available for urban agriculture.


Grounded in Philly has been working through many roadblocks. Although Merck has helped fund them, budgeting is always tight. They don’t have in-house tech abilities. Even in Philadelphia, not all of the data sources are available in a digital format, and thus require more work to retrieve. Philadelphia’s open-data policies have made coding the website easier, but each new administration comes with its own difficulties and opportunities. GIP has worked with the city to improve zoning codes, but often implementation takes a long time. For instance, according to city codes, people should theoretically be able to get 5-year leases on a case-by-case basis, but that’s just not happening. 


In the future, Amy sees GIP integrating even more data to help gardeners find land. So far, they’ve focused on a lot of ownership and tax information (see a list of their sources here) but not factors relating to whether the vacant land is a good site for gardening, such as soil quality or contamination levels. She wants to continue developing “Healthy Food Green Spaces,” a coalition of urban gardening related programs in Philadelphia. In a perfect world, GIP would also provide more direct services to people–a website only does so much to inspire participation.

Organization Structure

Grounded in Philly is the website for the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI). GJLI was started by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP). PILCOP’s mission is to use “high-impact legal strategies to improve the well-being and life prospects of the Philadelphia region’s most vulnerable populations by ensuring that they have access to the resources and services that all of us need to lead our lives.” GJLI has a traditional non-profit structure. There is a board led by an executive director. Amy directs the justice initiative project and reports to the executive director. At the same time, GJLI uses a community based law model, which means that its policy work is responsive to community needs and encourages community members to take initiative. The organization also maintains partnerships with other nonprofits and the city government.

Contact Information

I contacted Grounded in Philly by visiting the contact page ( and filling out the form with my questions, name and email. Amy replied to me by email, and then readily agreed to a phone interview. Her email address is Grounded in Philly is located in the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia in 1709 Ben Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103. The office’s telephone number is 267-546-1306 (probably).

Gardeners and the Sharing Economy

By galen.
Img 20140817 091931

As I rode my bike to Charlie's house a couple weekends ago, I felt excited. I was there to see the garden in his backyard. This Spring, Charlie collaborated with Bridget Harrison to replace his lawn with a raised-bed garden. As one of the techies on the MyCityGardens team, this was my first in-person interaction with users who had matched and grown a garden! And they pulled it off. Tomatoes, squash, strawberries, herbs, and more, from all of which they collect produce and seeds.

Img 20140817 100853

As a bonus for me, I was there because we have more good news. MyCityGardens is being featured in an upcoming interactive documentary, HUBFarm ( Produced by Lina Giraldo and Eliana Blaine, the film and website "highlight the current context of urban agriculture, future possibilities, and the historical legacy in the Boston area, covering strategies, interventions, and creations: artistic, technical, scientific, community-based, and design-inspired."

We're excited to participate in the spread of the sharing economy. Honestly, we're still figuring out how this will work. We're looking forward to next year and the next iteration of our plan to turn more grass into gardens.

PS We love learning from others who are giving things a shot. If you're trying something, send us a note or tweet at us @mycitygardens. We'd love to talk.

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Philadelphia does Yardsharing: Part 3

By lawrence.

Philadelphia does Yardsharing: Part 3

Sharing Backyards


In 2004, Christopher Hawkins, a web developer located in British Columbia, started Sharing Backyards as a side project. Sharing Backyards is an online garden match-maker, connecting people with extra yard space but no one to garden it with aspiring gardeners who don’t have yard space. Over time, the website has expanded to 400 cities in Canada, and has even extended to cities in the United States and New Zealand (go figure!).

Current Status

The Philadelphia listings for Sharing Backyards are outdated, and though I emailed six different users, none of them replied. Most of the listings are from 2011, when the Philadelphia branch of Sharing Backyards launched.


In dense cities, backyards with enough sun for gardening are rare, and there are long waiting lists for plots in community gardens. Sharing Backyards has the potential to help people connect and find ways to garden.


Sharing Backyards has expanded to include many different cities, and although a broad reach is exciting, it is likely that there isn’t enough capacity to follow through with all these cities and promote/encourage the service.

Organization Structure/Contact Info

Sharing Backyards is split into cities/regions and (unfortunately) it is unclear whether or not each city has its own local leadership/organizing team. The leadership of the Philadelphia program can (supposedly) be contacted through

Philadelphia does Yardsharing: Part 2

By lawrence.

Philadelphia does Yardsharing: Part 2

Germantown Kitchen Garden


In October 2008, Amanda Staples and her husband, Matt, purchased a home in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Though they had previous experience in both urban and organic farming, they were shocked when they arrived and saw the jungle of wild rose bushes and weeds covering the 1.5 acre plot--a result of 35 years worth of abandonment! Nonetheless, they cleared the land and with some help from Pennsylvania’s Horticultural Society’s City Harvest Growers Alliance, they dug 45 vegetable beds and planted fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs, and perennials. During our conversation, Amanda said, “We wanted to have a farm, but still enjoy the benefits of city life. We wanted to run a farm business, which involved buying a piece of land, rather than squatting on city owned property that would eventually be taken from us.” Soon, they started a CSA and sold produce to neighbors in addition to a restaurant.

Current Status

Over the last year, Amanda has made several changes to the Germantown Kitchen Garden (GKG) business model. Instead of a CSA, she sells the produce at market prices two days a week at a farmstand. GKG gained approval to accept FMNP vouchers April of 2011 and SNAP benefits March of 2014 in order to give more community members access to locally grown, fresh, organic food. Later in 2014, Amanda plans to build a greenhouse so she can propagate seedlings both to plant in her farm and sell. Amanda said that though GKG “currently makes enough money to sustain itself… in the future I hope to make a little bit of money from it.” 


GKG has provided Amanda and Matt the rare opportunity to grow and sell food while living in the city. They enjoy providing organic food to the community and to themselves, though they are also looking forward to building a greenhouse and increasing their farmstand sales to make the farm an economically sustainable enterprise. Furthermore, despite the enormous initial work of clearing their land, Amanda and Matt were lucky to pick this property. Unlike many other parts of the city, it has low lead levels and plentiful organic content from the surrounding trees.


All farming is difficult, but farming on city land brings many distinctly urban challenges. Though Amanda and Matt have managed to clear their land of the jungle that once covered it, they are still dealing with rubble and concrete left over from a building that used to occupy the space. They got creative, building retaining walls and walkways instead of throwing out the debris. And as is important with all urban farms, they tested their soil for heavy metal contaminants. Even though the results indicated that the soil was not toxic, it was a stressful process. The most pressing challenge of all, however, has been making a profit off of a city-farm, a challenge faced by urban farm enterprises all across the country. As previously stated, the farm is generating just enough money to keep itself going, and Matt has had to take a day-time job to generate more income.

Organization Structure/Contact Info

When asked about the structure of her program, Amanda immediately made it clear that GKG is not a program; it is a for-profit farm run by her and her husband. Since Matt now has a day-job, Amanda mainly runs the farm. 

Amanda can be reached by her email, or 610-405-4881. She has a blog for the farm,, and the farm is located at 215 E Penn Street, Philadelphia PA 19144.

Philadelphia does Yardsharing: Part 1

By lawrence.

Philadelphia does Yardsharing: Part 1

Earlier this (2014) growing season, MyCityGardens (MCG) was lucky enough to connect with a young woman, Talia Borofsky, who was excited to hear about our idea and wanted to have a short-term internship with us! 

Talia Borofsky (Portrait) <--- That's Talia!

Although there wasn't any money around to relocate Talia from her hometown, Philadelphia, to Boston for the month of her internship, we discussed a couple of projects and realized it would be great for her to research yardsharing activities right there in Philly. 

The bad news is that there didn't seem to be much MCG-style yardsharing happening in Philly, but the good news is that there is an incredible amount of gardening activity happening and some of it does involve sharing. Talia spent the month of May researching, interviewing, writing, and editing a short series of case studies and the MCG team is excited to share them here on our blog. While MCG doesn't have any plans to expand to Philadelphia (yet!), we are always looking to learn more about how people to share space. So, without further ado, here's part one (of four) of our intern blog series: Philadelphia does Yardsharing.

Preston’s Paradise


Ryan and Suzanna moved into their home on North Preston Street, Philadelphia, in 2006. They arrived with a background in food justice work from Tennessee. At first, they only planned to build a backyard garden, but soon it was filled to bursting with vegetables, and still they wanted to grow more. They quickly discovered that many of the residents had once worked together to tend community gardens, but were now too old to hoe and weed by themselves. The couple decided to restart their neighborhood’s culture of community gardening, utilizing their elderly neighbors’ knowledge and the community’s land assets.

Taking advantage of Philadelphia’s incredible network of urban gardening programs, they soon received the assistance of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s (PHS) City Harvest program. Using the tools, seeds, and soil that City Harvest supplied, they started eleven gardens over four or five years. These gardens were behind houses, schools, and churches, and they even revived an old community garden. One day, as the neighbors were admiring their hard work, one said, “This is like paradise!” and that’s when Ryan and Suzanna decided to call the collection of gardens, “Preston’s Paradise.”

Current Status

Preston’s Paradise has lost three of the gardens they helped start. The first one was in the side yard of a woman who, always known to be mercurial, suddenly disappeared. Then they lost a church garden when the pastor moved away, though a small orchard still remains. The third garden was on an old community garden only tended by one elderly man, but when he died Suzanna and Ryan found that maintaining a garden on absentee private land was too much of a burden. In addition, they have tried to teach homeowners about gardening, but in order to simplify maintenance, Ryan and Suzanna converted many of the vegetable gardens to fruit orchards thanks with help from the Philadelphia Orchard Project.


During my conversation with him, Ryan admitted that he and his wife had bitten off a little more than they could chew. They never had a volunteer corps to take care of all the scattered gardens, and between work and raising children, they had to find ways to decrease their own involvement. Originally, Ryan and Suzanna planned to start gardens in people’s backyards and then slowly transition ownership to land-owners. As they taught land-owners more about garden maintenance, theoretically, the land-owners would assume an increasing level of responsibility for each garden. However, vegetable gardening was too hard for a lot of people. Orchards have proven more successful (likely because they take less ongoing effort), so Ryan and Suzanna have replaced many of the old vegetable gardens with fruit trees. The gardens that still grow vegetables have easy to grow and maintain crops like sweet potatoes, kale, and garlic.
Ryan and Suzanna also used to run gardening workshops, but they found that people from other places in the city would come rather than community members. Ryan and Suzanna still provide resources, assistance, and knowledge to their neighbors, but they are much less involved in broad, organizing efforts.

Organization Structure

Preston’s Paradise is run by Ryan and Suzanna. It is more a collection of gardens that they helped neighbors start as opposed to an organization. They can be reached by phone, 215-531-0507, or by emailing or

Img001 Edited <--- Talia's amazing drawing of a garden that is a part of Preston's Paradise.

Choosing Vegetables in China

By jess.

Over lunch one day last week, a colleague of mine who grew up in China brought up an interesting observation she had made about how people select vegetables while shopping in China compared to the US. - Many folks in China prefer vegetables with inset holes. My first reaction was eww... Why would you want the bugs? But she sagely pointed out that there are far fewer health and safety regulations in China and the only way to really know if the food you are buying isn't doused in pesticides is if insects have been able to nibble on it.

Here in the US, I think we have a false sense of security when it comes to our food. A lot nasty chemicals get used in traditional agriculture in the US. Even organic foods contain a certain level of pesticides. Of course we can't feed the world's massive and continually growing human population without some level of pesticide use, so I don't know that the solution is.

But personally I will do two things. First this summer, I'm going to try to only eat salad greens that I've grown pesticide free myself. Second, while shopping I'm going to start looking for evidence of insects in my produce.

Sauerkraut .... a riot of happiness in the mouth

By jess.

written by Cass

I actually missed this Science and Cooking (fermentation) meetup in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago, but wanted to share my personal experience with making sauerkraut.

I was reminded that this would be a good blog post when a friend who is a registered nurse recently commented about how distressing it was that morning at work to be wearing a hazmat suit one minute while packing the wounds of a patient with one of those deadly MRSA infections, and then breaking for lunch. He was wondering how it's possible to eat after such a fearful activity. The answer for him was, "I couldn't! It's too scary!"

For those who are unaware of what "MRSA" means, my friend elaborated, "MRSA stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus. It's a drug-resistant superbug that causes awful infections." Well, I guess I might have added, ". . . a CLASS of superbugs . . ." because there are more and more kinds turning up all the time, even including new versions of familiar bugs that as infections go had previously been considered fairly benign.

MRSA are the result of rampant overuse of antibiotics that put pathogens on the fast track for adaptation and survival in the face of antibiotics.

My suggestion to combating this threat, I say, "So eat your sauerkraut!" Here's my take. As medicine, it's a plug for an ounce of prevention over a pound of cure. And as culinary art, it's a recommendation anyone can try to revive an old time favorite recipe, an incentive to create new and delicious applications, and an invitation to get ready to pucker and crunch.

Naturally fermented sauerkraut provides numerous probiotic advantages to the digestion, like all fermented foods are wont to do, replenishing the intestinal tract's beneficial bacteria. This includes naturally fermented vinegars, yogurt, tempe, kashi, and kombucha to name a few. Another benefit from these is that they provide a powerful boost the immune system. With good digestion and a strong immune system, threats from infections (whether bacterial or viral) are vastly diminished.

Sadly, though, most sauerkrauts available in the markets of the U.S.A. are not "alive" with the beneficial components I'm talking about here. Having been "stabilized" or "preserved" with distilled vinegar, they are devoid of the living organisms we need and love so very much. And the "living" examples of the product (available at health food stores) can be quite expensive because of relatively short shelf life compared to stabilized forms.

This is true because, left undisturbed under normal conditions, fermentation will continue until there is nothing left for these good bacteria to consume, somewhere distant along the timeline resulting in a stinky mess no one (or at least very few) would be willing to consume. Fermentation slows with lowered temperatures, but the product really must be consumed when "ready" just like all good food, within a certain window of delectability.

Cultivation of fermented foods is a fun, easy, interesting and even entertaining way to make it ever more likely that people can live life to the fullest through knowledge and the exciting adventures of learning to look after oneself.

To make your own sauerkraut at home, try the recipe, below. It is easy and inexpensive, delicious and healthful.

Cassie's Sauerkraut Method

I usually make sauerkraut with Savoy cabbage because of the krinkles in its leaves, which make it wiggle when you eat it, creating a riot of happiness in the mouth. I also like Red cabbage, beautiful for its color and flavor and the extra nutritional benefits signalled by that rich color. If I have both on hand, I may layer the Red on the bottom and the Savoy on the top. Yet any kind of cabbage, plus numerous other vegetables will "sauer," i.e. "ferment," admirably.

Recipes for natural sauerkraut use no vinegar, instead drawing whatever is needed from the air reacting with salt, vegetable fuel (and other components, no doubt) to allow fermentation to begin.

You will need to gather together:
A crock (or any kind of pot — earthen, glass, or stainless steel)
Two or three new plastic bags of the type found in the produce section at the market
Shredded cabbage
A heavy, unbreakable object for bruising the shredded vegetables, and

Chop or otherwise cut up the cabbage, bruise it slightly with a chef's kudgel or other heavy object, then add sea salt or other natural salt — up to a couple of tablespoons for a large head of cabbage‚ and mix thoroughly.

You may also add chiles (to make kimchi), ginger (which itself ferments nicely), or other spices or vegetables.

Pack the cabbage tightly into the crock. Leave enough space at the top, 3 inches or so should suffice, for the weight, to be added when ready to seal it off. Add a little extra water to the cabbage, just enough to assure everything is immersed, then compress with some kind of weight, and cover so that it is airtight.

I found the sealing and weighting part a little awkward until I devised the following method using plastic bags. I use two or 3 bags, placed one inside the other, to achieve multiple thicknesses that will assure it doesn't leak:

Place the bag(s) on top of the packed kraut. Pour a quantity of water into the innermost bag. This creates a good weight for the appropriate pressure. Reaching into the pool of water you have created, press gently around the edges to expell any air bubbles, then tie the bag off.

Leave the crock in a spot out of direct sunlight for 2-3 weeks. In warm temperatures, fermentation will proceed more quickly; cooler temperatures take longer.

In two or three weeks, pour the water out of the water bag/weight and push it aside so you can remove a few bites for tasting. If necessary, replenish the water and return to its resting place. Taste it every so often.

When fermented to taste, transfer the sauerkraut to clean glass jars, packing it well, and refrigerate. Refrigeration greatly slows fermentation. Sauerkraut kept this way will last in the refrigerator for many months. Before using, rinse well.

You may use it raw or add it to stir-fry. Try making cole slaw with it -- it's amazing! You can also make other vegetable pickle, exactly as described above, using carrots, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, ginger, or an assortment of these and other things such as turnips, kale, or rutebaga.

(Use "dense" vegetables only. Do not use onions or cucumbers, as these are too watery and will rot instead of ferment unless pickled with a different method that involves heat and sterilization.)

It's alive! It's so good, and good for you. You may find, as we have, that our immune systems get strong, making us tough and resilient, so that we hardly ever get sick with the usual cold- and flu-bugs that are making the rounds. In fact, the last time I got sick was in the winter of 2004 when I was working in a commercial art studio where the air was very dry due to forced air heat. (Properly humidified air is another factor that goes a long way toward preventing winter illnesses.) My co-worker was a lady with small kids, and that family would get several colds a year. So I caught it, whatever it was. But even so, my own discomfort lasted a mere 24 hours and did not recur after the initial infection — and that was nine years ago.

To your health!

At some point when writing about health and well-being, I usually find myself reminding readers of research stemming from HIV and AIDS that revealed more than twenty years ago the fact that white blood cells, or "lymphocytes," are not one type of cell, but several types. Yet a general increase in the white blood cell count remains the signal that most medical tests still use to recognize the presence of infection.

But the white blood cells, in and of themselves, are not actually the body's first line of defense. We now know that only 10-15% of these are what are now called "K" cells, or "killer" or "natural killer" cells, and that it's these "K" cells that are often the first to recognize pathogenic invaders within the body and to initiate the crucial immune responses to foreign pathogens. When other components of the lymphocytes like the "T" cell and the "B" cell, and others, rise and display elevation in the general white blood cell count, it's an indication that the body is already very ill.

It's amazing how quickly knowledge is lost, as hardly anyone seems aware of this today, only a couple of decades on from this wonderful and important discovery.

Naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut (and others, some of which were mentioned above) feed and support the immune system's first line of defense, the "K" cells. The critical ingredient in foods that help in this way is N-acetyl cysteine.

N-acetyl cysteine, a mere atom or two distant from living vinegar, has been found to maintain a rather predictable presence in space rocks, not to mention in the very air we breathe. This suggests to me, at least, that the same credence some might afford to Deity might also be paid to vinegar, since N-acetyl cysteine has been demonstrated to be ubiquitous in the universe whereas symbolic expressions of deity are only presumed to be.