Gardeners are coming together in all kinds of ways to grow food and feed others with it.
By Anna Herman
Lisa McCurdy and Laurie Jenkins did not set out to be farmers. Five years ago, having outgrown their small Mount Airy backyard garden, they happened upon a house in nearby Flourtown with 1½ acres — in a township where zoning allows for farm animals.
Soon they were raising kids (that would be baby goats) in an idyllic setting just behind Fort Washington State Park and offering neighbors a chance to buy their just picked vegetables and freshly made goat cheese.
In Philadelphia neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs, more and more people are sharing harvests from back- and front-yard gardens with all kinds of formal and informal agreements.
Some arrangements are born of a desire to provide affordable organic food to residents in poor neighborhoods, while others want to share the labor, and still others simply want to grow more food than they can eat.
In Bala Cynwyd, for example, Baily Cypress and her neighbors are doing a variation of the classic community garden. Instead of each person's getting a plot in a communal space, four neighbors plan to grow specific vegetables in their own backyards and share with one another.
On Penn Street in Germantown, a young farmer who lives in a group house has planted enough vegetables to feed not only all 11 housemates, but also to share with neighbors who contribute to the garden costs.
Near Mantua, young gardeners on Preston Street now share the bounty of the gardens planted in the once fallow backyards of older homeowners on the block.
And in Flourtown, Jenkins and McCurdy now have a mini-CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) going. Over the last five years they have transformed their property, planting peach, pear, and apple trees and a 30-by-70-foot fenced-in garden, growing strawberries, cucumbers, peas, carrots, beets, shallots, asparagus, spinach, lettuces, okra, broccoli, and all kinds of herbs and edible flowers.
"I knew I wanted to make fresh cheese from the milk of our own animals," said Jenkins, a school nurse. "We couldn't afford to buy the goats and all the specialized equipment for cheesemaking without the support of our dairy CSA."
This year 20 families have paid $250 to come once a month, from June to December, to pick up various fresh and aged dairy products: cheese, yogurt, and butter, all made from some combination of the milks of their goats and sheep's and cow's milk from local organic dairy farms.
Jenkins also provides several families a weekly market basket of items from the garden — a selection of fresh produce, salsa, or jam — and dairy CSA members can purchase fresh eggs if they like.
In the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Belmont/Mantua — known in urban planning parlance as a "food desert" with no supermarket and few sources of fresh produce — there is a burgeoning effort to transform unused yard space into gardens.
Ryan Kuck and Suzanna Urminska planted and still tend a garden and orchard in a vacant lot next to their house on Preston Street — the beginning of "Preston's Paradise," the first of many efforts to improve the neighborhood's access to fresh foods.
For the second season, Kuck and Urminska organized the planting of gardens in the little-used front, side, and backyards of six older neighbors on their block. Volunteers plant, tend, and harvest this group of beds, filled with kale, collards, mustard greens, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and herbs, combining the harvests from all in order to distribute a weekly bag of just-picked produce.
Extra produce from these gardens is sold at below market prices at a small farm stand, or transformed into neighborhood dinners of collards and greens with smoked turkey, spinach salad, and mint lemonade.
"Because we are in a low-wealth neighborhood it is important to us to create affordable ways for elders and families to have access to fresh organic food," says Urminska. Kuck, now the farmer at Greensgrow Farms in Kensington, first became interested in these issues during his work with the Urban Nutrition Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.
Seedlings, mulch, and topsoil come from City Harvest, a local program that promotes urban gardening; donations from two private foundations pay for plant materials and other expenses. Kuck and Urminska donate all the organization and administrative time.
In East Germantown, the large group home next door to what was recently a weed- and junk-filled lot is now the Germantown Kitchen Garden, providing fresh vegetables and fruit each week in season for more than 40 people.
Amanda Staples and her 11 housemates share the work and the harvest, and Staples offers additional shares for a weekly $20 fee. People make a commitment to buy a box of produce each week, all season long.
The bursting and bountiful rows of colorful lettuces, curly kale, and just-sprouting potatoes are quite a contrast to trash-strewn, weedy properties nearby.
"Everyone has been so welcoming and interested in our garden," Staples said. "Neighbors who may have grown up farming or gardening have been full of advice."
In Bala Cynwyd, five women who share a love of gardening and cooking are now also sharing their yards. Baily Cypress, Tracy Katz, Mona Zackheim, Amy Beckman, and Julie Barol made a commitment to collaborate. They are helping one another plan and plant their gardens and will share in the eventual harvest.
"Tracy decided we could make less work and more fun out of something we already enjoy," said Beckman, and feed their children, 10 among them, quite well at the same time.
Each gardener is specializing in a few crops. Most got their husbands and children involved in some way. Baily and her husband, Chip Cypress, took it to the extreme. They had limited yard space, so they devoted the front lawn to apple, plum, and fig trees as well as vegetables.
Then they got rid of half their driveway to make room for garden beds, filling a dumpster themselves with 14 tons of driveway rubble.
Now this space is growing kale and cabbage, which will be followed this summer by dozens of different peppers and the group's zucchini.
These five women are getting to know one another better and learning about varieties of veggies and fruits they've never tried (or even heard of before, like Blushing Beauty bell peppers, which turn from white to pink to red). They send their kids down the block to harvest herbs for dinner.
There is not a formal arrangement, and no one is in charge. An e-mail request to the group for help generally yields at least one extra pair of hands to get a task accomplished. Come fall, they plan to can tomatoes together, and test recipes for homemade hot sauce in the hope that some of the chili seedlings sitting under lights today will provide ripe chili peppers in the waning days of August.
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