Going for it is Becher’s modus operandi. Tall and thin, with intense blue eyes and an iPhone that buzzes nonstop, he’s not someone you picture cooing over cowslips with a bunch of old ladies. He’s more a chainsaw kind of guy. And while he likes our town, there’s plenty here that offends his aesthetic sense.
That sound you just heard? That’s Becher revving up his saw.
WHEN THE PENNSYLVANIA HORTICULTURAL SOCIETY was founded in 1827, with a mission to “improve the quality of life and create a sense of community through horticulture,” Philadelphia was already the bulwark of gardening in America. From his home on the banks of the Schuylkill — the oldest living botanical garden in the nation — John Bartram sent newly discovered plant species to scientists in Europe. John James Audubon created his nature museum here; the Peirce brothers planted an arboretum where Longwood Gardens stands. In those days, gardening was a wild and woolly avocation that led men to risk their lives chasing down unknown flowers and trees.
Becher (pronounced “Becker”) is thoroughly urban — he’d never even owned a car until he and Lochner bought the house in Chestnut Hill five years ago, as a weekend retreat. In Chicago, the pair had an apartment in a starkly modern skyscraper in the West Loop that seems as far from nature as you can get. Yet in spirit he’s kindred to the renegade Bartram, who got kicked out of his Quaker meeting for apostasy. When Becher says, “Being a horticulturalist is sexy again,” you want to believe.
Take, for instance, the vast empty lot at the corner of 20th and Market streets. How many times have you walked past that lot and thought, “Somebody ought to do something here?” This spring, Becher will, employing a coalition of chefs to plant a huge kitchen garden. Another eyesore he plans to uproot is the vacant space across Broad Street from the Kimmel. “I really want to up the ante on design of our public lands,” he explains in his PHS office at 20th and Arch streets. “These are our postcards to the world. I want people to drive by and say, ‘Look what Philadelphia has done!’”
Becher’s like any gardener or designer who longs to make his surroundings more attractive. He just happens to operate on a different scale. Where your quarter-acre lot may be your canvas, his stretches from the tiny backyard plots of South Philly to the thriving community gardens of West Philly to the Azalea Garden at the Art Museum and the gorges and hills of the Wissahickon Valley. And his plans for our environs hinge on using the Flower Show—the linchpin of PHS since its inception — to brand Philly in a whole new way.