Can a small plot of land in the city of Philadelphia unite residents, produce sustainable food, increase property value and provide for the less fortunate? The Philadelphia Horticultural Society (PHS) and many community gardens in the area are doing just that.
Community gardens in Philadelphia are an overlooked treasure. It provides a space for socializing, keeps food costs down and beautifies the community so residents can be proud of where they live.
Eileen Gallagher, a City Projects Manger for PHS, manages the City Harvest Grant. This grant provides for over 35 community gardens in the area and is funded predominately by the Greenfield Foundation.
Unexpected ingredients in the City Harvest project are inmates from the Philadelphia prison system.
“The inmates grow all of the vegetables from seeds that we give out. Last year they grew 20,000 seedlings,” Gallagher said.
City Harvest collects the seedlings and delivers them to the 35 gardens it supports. The gardens decided how many veggies they can grow. The inmates involved are low risk inmates who usually only have one month to six weeks left on their sentence.
“Right now, the gardeners that participate grow food and donate it to a local food pantry,” Gallagher said.
The donation of fresh fruits and vegetables to food pantries present fresh food options for residents who could not afford fresh food for their families. That is the main focus of the grant.
“There are some gardens that having been giving to their church and their neighbors for years. We asked them to weigh and document how much food they give out each month. 25,000 pounds of food has been given in the last two years,” Gallagher said.
Vacant lots within communities used to provide opportunities for gardens to take root. In recent years, that formula has changed significantly.
“I’ve been doing this job for 20 years now. Before, when there was a vacant lot, no one really cared about that. Over the years, the real estate value of property has increased so much, that it’s hard to find a vacant lot to make a garden,” she said.
Gallagher also notes that social and community organizations have worked hard to clean up areas that housed vacant lots. Philadelphia Green is one of the organizations who has a contract from the city to clean up. They mow grass, pick up trash and put up wooden fences.
Most gardens are regulated by PHS or the Neighborhood Garden Association, very few are owned by the gardeners. The cost to maintain a plot in a community garden varies based on the garden’s size. The fee can range anywhere from $5-15.
Gallagher stresses that university students can help out and feel apart of the community.
“We work with a lot of university students, usually from March until May. That is when some of the gardens start planning and getting cleaned up from the winter,” Gallagher said.
PHS has a community outreach program called Philadelphia Green; they are responsible for recruiting volunteers and handling any interaction with the community. PHS also works closely with Mayor Nutter’s administration; there is a plan underway to ‘green’ the entire parkway.
“We’ve been getting more groups that want to come. A big part of our program is to work with volunteers. It’s a huge help for the gardeners,” Gallagher said.
While it may seem that everyone in the community would be in agreement with starting a garden, any potential plans must be made public information and anyone who wants to start a garden needs to attend a class. The class is usually once a week in the evenings for five consecutive weeks; it is offered twice a year.
“We require them to go through a course called Garden Tenders. You have to make a petition and make sure the people in the community know what’s going on. Make sure you know who owns the land,” Gallagher said.
PHS and Philadelphia Green also help to maintain and manage contracts for more high profile public spaces like Logan Square, Fairmont Park, City Hall and planting along the Delaware River.
Gallagher explains the reason why community gardens are so successful:
“The key is community involvement. The gardens that have been here for 25 or 30 years last because everyone there has a common goal.”
You can contact Morgan Wade at firstname.lastname@example.org.