Gardening Philadelphia Style

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Note: This article by Natalie Kempner, clerk of the meeting in the 1980s, was assembled from pieces she wrote in various publications, including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's magazine, Green Scene.

My city gardening began in the early 70's with a bunch of kids on a grimy asphalt schoolyard in North Philadelphia. We grew enough vegetables for one magnificent salad and won an award for environmental change.

In the years that followed, teaching environmental education, working with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's community gardening program, judging for the annual City Gardens Contest, I became a fan of Philadelphia gardeners. I collected their stories and wrote frequently about their victories in the battle to reclaim the city's wastelands.

Every gardening venture is a leap of faith. In today's cities, it requires a particular brand of stout-hearted optimism to take that leap -- to consider sowing even a single seed.

The obvious city problem is space; inventing a site when your doorstep is on the sidewalk and your backyard is concrete - or, if there is a vacant lot, clearing it. In Kensington, an arthritic gardener led our reluctant judging team up a rickety ladder to view her roof garden of container plants. Blanche Epps and friends hauled away 35 truckloads of trash before gardening began in Gethsemane.

Depleted soil, vandalism, and lack of light, water and garden center - all are problems indigenous to urban gardening, solved with mind-boggling ingenuity.

For water, Salvador Morales runs hoses to a tree in the middle of his garden where two fan blades scatter the water. Because Lawrence King's garden lies in the shadow of a tall building, he arranges foil on his house wall to reflect light and warm his sun-craving vegetables.

Innovative recycling replaces garden centers. Salvaged sinks and toilet bowls overflow with plants. Beans climb up crutches and stepladders. In one neighborhood, colorful bathroom fixtures, discarded from a local factory, mark walkways and boundaries.

Right from the start, Mary Walke has prevented vandalism by enlisting every neighbor and even the most casual passerby to be part of the community sitting garden. "First we cleared the ugly dump site of a lot. Big construction stuff. Dead dogs. Crabs and fishbones from a seafood restaurant. Lord, it did stink!"

"I served lemonade and cookies and even the trash collectors joined in. The druggies rolled wheelbarrows and the neighborhood hookers came by to say how beautiful it all was. Before you knew it, the space was clean, the fence up, bushes planted, benches ready and everyone oohed and aahed: We did it!"

"And I said, 'if we can do it everybody can. And if everybody does it, our city will shine again!'"

Tatiana Bembischew grew up working in the gardens of a collective farm in the Soviet Union. Her garden in West Kensington is a tribute to the ingenuity born of a lifetime of courageous coping and proud improvising. Its narrow curving paths are inlaid with tiles and marble slabs salvaged from crumbling townhouses. Its fertilizer comes from countless walking trips to the nearest police horse barn. Its seeds are from last year's crops. A peach seed tossed into her compost grew with startling speed into a sturdy, fruit-bearing tree.

The year that James Taylor retired from his job, the giant warehouses that filled the blocks across from his house burned down. Taylor found himself sitting on his front porch gazing across 4 acres of blackened debris to the Amtrak train tracks.

"I needed to keep busy, and here was this big old lot."

That was in 1984, and Taylor has kept busy on that lot ever since. With know-how from his grandpa's North Carolina "trucking farm", and help from Philadelphia Green, he became the life force of Green Acres.

Taylor, tall and straight and lean, is my notion of an aristocratic gentleman farmer, always ready to guide a guest along the carpeted paths (Taylor laid the carpets) which separate the 97 tidy plots. He explains the irrigation system which carries water from a hydrant through hoses and pipes to strategically located spigots throughout the farm and displays with pride the terraced gardens leading to a pergola on top of a person-made hill.

"Anything you wanna do - you can do it!" proclaims Taylor. And he does make it seem that way.

Because of a "bad leg", Alice Cooper, a rugged woman with a sharp wit and a "good remembrance", uses a stick to walk to her garden in her high-topped Aeroflax shoes. "But when I'm there, I forget my leg!"

At 83, Alice cultivates two Green Acres plots. "One's not enough for a day's work. I'm out there all day long in summer. I do two plantings."

"I learned from childhood how to sow, rake, reap." As she talks, she pantomimes the sowing, the raking. "When that crop comes up, it's music to your ears. The song gets going with that hoe ... zing, zing, zing ... then that hoe make music too and you don't even know you working." She moves to her music..." and then, that cotton ready and we pickin' all day long, sunrise to sundown."

Alice never wears gloves in her garden. "That good ol' earth, it feel so good on my hands. You take my garden away from me, you take my soul."

"I tell people, 'Don't ring my doorbell; knock on my garden gate.'" This is Tomasita Romero, whose flower and vegetable garden, retrieved from half a block of rubble-filled lots, provides produce for her neighborhood's Senior Citizens and hungry, non-gardening families:

"Summer here is too short to grow all the things we grow in Puerto Rico; but tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, corn, eggplant, peppers, garlic, onions are basic in our cooking, and I grow them all. I have tomatoes for the whole block and I freeze enough tomato sauce for the whole winter."

The first startling thing about Blanche Epps' garden is that it's an hour's round trip by bus from her home. Blanche started gardening three years after she became disabled with arthritis. "I never had a pain in my life 'til I moved here and hit this concrete."

Her doctor asked what she most hated to do. Her prompt: "To garden!" brought his, "Then garden!" It will get rid of your frustration."

There is no space for gardens where Blanche lives, but she remembered the "hill of trash"in her old neighborhood where her children and grandchildren still live. Friends declared her crazy, but she had doctor's orders, so they helped her with the 35 loads and Gethsemane was on the way.

Blanche attributes her now forgotten aversion to gardening to growing up on a South Carolina farm. "Everything our family drank, smoked, ate or played with came from our land. Gardening was life's work and children 'had to' do it."

According to Blanche, "The best gardeners are generally immigrants from the South - and generally over 50. Like me, they realize gardening is our roots. It gives us a chance to use skills we've let go dormant. It gives us a chance to UNDORMANTIM the past!"

All through the Garden of Gethsemane grow reminders of southern roots: peanuts, cotton, tobacco. "I want my grandchildren to know their heritage," Blanche explains, as she fashions thick leaves from a sugar cane plant into a feather duster, then weaves a wreath from strands of a sweet potato vine draped around her neck. She grows southern wood to replace mothballs in her closets and sticks a sprig of tansy in her hat to keep the bugs away.

"And here's bible leaf. Grandma broke a few leaves from the plant by our front door as we left for church so she could mark the pages in the hymnal. The leaves are fragrant, and everybody brought them, so they kept the church fresh."

At the end of a day in the garden, Blanche boards her bus, laden with vegetables, herbs and flowers and heads home to preserve, pickle and bake

A garden can be anywhere, everywhere. That's Blanche's wisdom

"The canvas is there. You be the artist. But, you got to feel it! Gardening is feeling!".

Natalie Kempner