Mind-Boggling West Philly Container Garden

Plant lovers in West Philly have probably noticed this house at 47th and Baltimore because it has one of the most exuberant rooftop gardens I’ve ever seen. Gardener Fred Wolfe has been building his plant collection on this corner for more than 40 years. He started gardening at 4703 and 4705 Baltimore Avenue, but in 1983 he moved to his current home at 4701 Baltimore.

Wolfe’s garden is spread over several different areas. What he calls his sidewalk garden is a combination of perennials and annuals planted in containers. This garden has cannas, red-twig dogwood, hardy hibiscus, magnolias and black-eyed susans.

There’s a shady side yard and a triangular back garden. These spaces are a combination of containers and in-ground plantings, including hostas, forsythia, a fringe tree and a purple smoke bush. “I fell in love with hellebores at the Flower Show this year, and have added about two dozen of those,” Wolfe said.

The second floor roof deck facing the street is what makes the house so noticeable. There Wolfe grows peonies, several varieties of lilies, gladiolus and caladiums. Wolfe has planted clematis vines, nasturtiums and sweet potato vines so that they spill over the edge of the roof. “By next year when the clematis on the roof have taken hold and grow downward, I hope to obscure even more of the house.”

The final space is another roof deck above the third floor. “The top roof garden is the most intimate,” Wolfe said. There’s a small collection of chairs, but as the summer advances and the plants fill out there’s hardly any room left for the chairs. Here Wolfe and his spouse, Gary Bronson, keep their collection of Amaryllis during the summer months. The top roof garden is also the home of some of their most prized plants– an Agave Americana, a Carolina spice bush, and a hardy hibiscus with a beige flower against bronze leaves.

Most of Wolfe’s containers are inexpensive 32-gallon storage bins with holes drilled in the bottoms for drainage. He said getting the right amount of water is a challenge in container gardening. He has garden hoses connected on the ground floor, second floor and attic. But his hydrangeas tend to dry out quickly in the sun and wind, and he has to keep a close eye on them. Conversely, some containers hold water too well and the soil becomes waterlogged. “Careful observation is really important,” he said.

“My passion for gardening came from my maternal grandmother, Viola Mae Behrens, and from her friends,” Wolfe told us. “Each summer, when the first flower opens on the night-blooming Cereus which belonged to my grandmother, I send out an email to our neighbors and we have an impromptu sidewalk party as it opens.”