Green Thumb: Growing Together

If you dig too far in the dirt patch by the chain fence, you’ll hit bricks from where the old middle school used to be. If you walk by at 5 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, you’ll see Mr. Jones pulling weeds from his plot. Every Friday the head of the local nursing home stops by to pick up produce and fresh flowers from generous members. Community gardens hold memories within their soil, make use of green space that may otherwise be left vacant, and give urban dwellers a place for their plants to call home.

“Gardens tend to be a reflection of the people who live in the community,” says Terry Mushovic, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Association/A Philadelphia Land Trust (NGA) in Philadelphia, which provides technical assistance and liability insurance to local gardens to prevent developments from taking them over. “Maybe that particular community had a vacant lot where trash piled up,” she says. “That space could be used to bring people together.” The NGA holds the land titles to about 30 gardens, each with their own story and gardening style.

One of the largest gardens in Philadelphia is the Spring
Gardens, which covers an entire city block from 18th to 19th streets on Wallace Street and has 180 member families. Rows of golden sunflowers, ripe tomatoes, 12-foot-tall cornstalks and the smell of mint make it easy to forget you’re in the city. Architect and garden coordinator Stephan White knows it takes a lot of time and manpower to keep this feeling alive.

“Every Saturday we have a working pizza party where the members get together and pull weeds, mow and pick up litter,” he says. Ten hours of labor per season and a small yearly fee ($10 for a 10-by-10-foot plot or $20 for a 10-by-20-foot plot) are the two major membership requirements. Living in the designated community area (Fairmount Avenue to Spring Garden Street to Broad Street to the Schuylkill River) also helps, but isn’t mandatory. “There are two waiting lists that total about 90 people, but it’s really a shoebox deal,” White says. “If you live in the community, your name gets pulled out of the box first.”


Out of the box is the way the members of the all-organic Southwark/Queen Village Community Garden on 3rd and Christian streets think about gardening. They garden organically, grow most everything from seed and maintain both compost piles and beehives. There’s a children’s garden near the back wall with a mini-picnic table and plastic gardening tools.

In addition to private plots, members share common-area plots filled with fruit and fig trees, honey from the beehives and, if they’re lucky, the homemade sangria one member makes from grapevines ripe with seven different grape varieties.

Barbara Seiple, garden chair, beekeeper and a member for 19 years, knows the garden so well she could probably walk through with her eyes closed, bees and all. She can recite each member’s brief
history and what they grow.

Although this garden is smaller than the Spring Gardens, according to the USDA its 84 members managed to produce roughly $29,000 worth of herbs, fruits and vegetables in 2000 from 61 plots. “I like to plant a little of everything — lettuce, spinach, carrots, melon, red beets, beans, zucchini — and I do it all from seed,” says Seiple.

Along with being big producers, members do their best to work with the surrounding community. Each week they donate fresh produce and herbs to the JCC’s Jacob and Esther Stiffel Senior Center in Philadelphia and have served as a past demonstration garden for agricultural
students at Penn State. Last year in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s (PHS) City Garden Contest, they tied for first place and also won the Fresh Fields Award.

To commemorate their 20th anniversary in 1999, local businesses and community members donated enough money to commission a mosaic mural on the side wall of the garden. Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, most famous for the glass murals along South Street, took on the task and created one of the garden’s most prized additions. Now the garden members are focusing their efforts on their next big project: solar power.


For the past 30 years, members of the Warrington Community Garden in West Philadelphia have been using the land to produce food for their families. After a fire in the 1970s destroyed the warehouse that was once on the property, members of the community formed an association and fought to secure the empty land as open space with the help of the NGA. The process helped the members embrace the different cultures that make up their community and gave them a space to come together and create new memories.

“All of the members bring something special to the garden,” says garden coordinator Judy Gernon. As she walks through the garden, she grabs a Green Zebra tomato fresh from the vine and bites into it. One family grows amaranth, a tall, bushy green plant that some gardeners might mistake for a weed, but which many cultures prize for its leaves (used as salad greens) and seeds (used to make everything from flour to beverages).

Anyone can become involved with a community garden, regardless of how green your thumb is. Eva Monheim, garden writer and educator in the Philadelphia area, teaches classes at Temple University and through PHS’s City Gardening Series, which are free to the public. Topics range from herb gardening to which plants survive best in the city climate. PHS also has a library where you can read about your favorite plants or vegetables. If you live outside the city, PHS offers tours and field trips to urban community gardens.

“Community gardens are places we can walk through to relieve our stress and breathe in an environment that is green and healthy,” says Monheim. “It’s amazing the way a garden can pull people together.”