Wednesday, September 9, 2009

City Garden Contest

Gardeners at work in Community Garden in Awbury Arboretum

Philadelphia is a most unusual city. It has somewhat of an inferiority complex in its relationship to New York and Washington. Its accomplishments are almost always described in the past tense. It was the first Capital; it has the first zoo, many of the first museums or major collections, the first modern skyscraper etc. Even one of its neighborhoods, “The Parkway” gets often described as an American Champs Elysees. There is nothing wrong with the grittiness or some of its has-been qualities. It has great cultural institutions that include theater, symphony, opera, jazz, and everything you can imagine with a roster of great dining and drinking establishments. It is a city of neighborhoods and of a very varied population where the rich live within blocks to the poor and everything in between. It is a very walkable place and in many ways one of the nicest American cities you will discover.

One of the greatest institutions in Philadelphia is the Not-for-Profit Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) They put on the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest and oldest such in event on the planet. For what its worth, my friends from Kew Gardens thought it was much better than the English, Chelsea Flower Show! PHS is also responsible for undertaking many citywide beautification and neighborhood improvement programs trying to sort out some of the problems left over from having been such an important city in the past. When I first arrived here to do graduate studies in 1992, the city had over 50,000 empty and decaying buildings! Over time, many neighborhoods have seen major renovation and new interest, but problems still remain like in most cities
Flower Bed at Awbury Community Garden
One of the most interesting programs undertaken by PHS is a citywide effort that aims to help create green places throughout the city where people can garden and reclaim many of the abandoned lots where the old buildings stood. This is a major effort, as you can imagine, for many sites are left over with tons of debris from poorly demolished structures. PHS and neighborhoods team up to clean up and create places for neighbors to garden and come together as communities. There are numerous gardens throughout the city and I suspect that no other city in the United States can lay claim to a similar accomplishment.

In August, the City Garden Contest takes place where gardeners are encouraged to enter their efforts for recognition and appreciation by peer gardeners. Judging categories include, small medium and large community, flower, children’s, potted, streetscapes, vegetable…you get the idea. Everyone is welcomed and hopefully everyone is further encouraged to keep doing what they have done to better the city, their neighborhoods and their lives.

I became involved with the group as a student at the University of Pennsylvania when I was working on my graduate landscape degree in early 1990's
. The truth of it is, that for me, it has been the most wondrous experience in my gardening life. Judging gardens has allowed me to meet fellow gardeners from all sorts of social and economic classes. I have been in neighborhoods that were covered with needles from drug abuse where these gardens were one of the first outposts to improving the quality of life.

Individual Plot arranged for socializing and food and flower production

Over the years I have seen every garden imaginable and discovered a lot of wonderful neighborhoods in Philadelphia. There have been fancy gardens where the owners have offered us all kinds of refreshments and goodies to eat and be friendly and at the same time try and impress us to award them a first prize. Similary, we have been in gardens where people were really poor but just as grand an effort was done to show us a great time with very little but their hard work.

It is with great pride that I share with you some of the gardens and the ideas from this year. Our group of four judged the final selections for Community Gardens. Here gardens are composed of many individual plots for people to garden who don't have their own yards. In most all such community gardens there are waiting lists to get a plot. Depending on the demand, some Community Gardens allow you to only keep your plot for a few years and then go on a wait list to get one all over again ( a bit Draconian if you ask me).

These gardens show all levels of participation. In some cases older gardeners teach young gardeners techniques for growing all sorts of plants. The gardens have limited resources but are clever or inventive with what they have: some have water, others borrow it from city hydrants or have rain barrels or drag hoses from neighboring faucets. Food is grown for the individual, for the community or as it has become the case with more successful gardens, they allocate a portion of their food production that is in turn donated to Citywide food banks to help feed anyone who needs it. When you think of it, there is nothing more generous.

Raised beds: if you are on a wheel chair or have a bad back you can still garden

A strange watering manifold by Schuylkill River Park Community Garden!

Some of the great sunflowers from this Summer

Art Museum Community Garden Compost Piles

Art Museum Community Garden Various Plots: A hammock for the weary!

Getting the Tour

More of the plots

Rain barrels for watering that are filled through a main system. Only watering Cans allowed here

Another Glory of Summer

The PHS Awards Ceremony will be held sometime in the middle of October. Unfortunately, some garden win more than others as they have more people participating, more resources or political capital and are in better locations. Regardless, all are winners who garden! All the gardens are in Philadelphia, even though a group of us has been pushing to include the neighboring Jersey suburbs. Happy Gardening!


  1. I enjoyed your post Rene and feel your love for Philly ! PHS, its members and activities are so valuable to the city.

    I got a 3rd place this year. Pics of my garden over at Philly Market Cafe.

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  3. Our group of four judged the final selections for Community Gardens. Here gardens are composed of many individual plots for people to garden who don't have their own yards.