The popcorn plants didn’t just sprout; they took off. From neighbors to preschool teachers, everyone on my Christmas list — and then some — popped my popcorn in the new year.
That was my only venture into community gardening. But after a mustachioed man wearing a tweed jacket and a Phillies ball cap showed me around his plot, I might reconsider.
The seedlings are started there as part of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest program, which enables urban gardeners to provide fresh produce to needy neighbors. They’re then transplanted and grown in 140 urban gardens throughout Philadelphia. Finally, the harvested produce is distributed to food pantries and at farmers’ markets.
One of those urban gardens is the Wiota Street Community Garden, a fixture of the West Powelton neighborhood of Philadelphia since 1984.
When John Lindsay moved into the neighborhood in the early 1980s, he envisioned turning a large vacant lot at the corner of Wiota Street and Powelton Avenue into a community garden. Unlike a traditional community garden, where neighbors have their own plots, Lindsay designed the Wiota Street garden to grow as much produce as possible.
Anchored by a peach tree, the garden yields bumper crops of strawberries, beets, Swiss chard, bush peas, Oriental long beans, mustard greens, Tokyo and frost turnips, okra, eggplant, celery and rhubarb. An arbor covered with Concord grapes stands near compost bins. Dahlias, zinnias and Honey Bear sunflowers are some of the flowers the garden grows.
Peppers varieties range from sweet banana and green to jalapenos and California Wonders. Romaine, Black Seeded Simpson, Heatwave Blend and other lettuce varieties are started in cold frames. Rutgers and Supersonic tomatoes are planted far apart for ventilation. Once the spinach bed has produced its last crop, it is remade into a patch for cucumbers said to taste like watermelons.
Marked with colorful signs painted by students from a local charter school, a sizeable bed of herbs includes German thyme, cilantro, parsley, mint, marjoram, dill, sage, rosemary, lavender, oregano, lovage, garlic and chives.
Watching over the whole affair is a scarecrow that looks like Lindsay’s twin.
Selecting his seeds from packets organized in alphabetical order, Lindsay keeps a journal of what he plants when, and when the seeds germinate. He also keeps a log of how many people volunteer during the gardening season, which numbers in the hundreds. Volunteers help by planting and harvesting to cutting the grass and weeding.
Lindsay invites visitors to help with the final pea harvest of the year, plying them with refreshments after the work is done and encouraging them to go home with as many snap peas as they can carry. To attract even more visitors to the garden, he has also established an area for dog-walking, benches for relaxing and a Little Free Library for browsing.
A Plexiglas-topped counter protecting photos documenting the garden’s first years serves as the checkout for the garden’s farm stand. The harvest is sold on Sundays, with the proceeds going to run the garden. Lindsay takes leftovers to local food banks and homeless shelters. In 2016, Lindsay donated 1,000 pounds of produce to Philadelphia food banks.
No wonder the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society presented the Wiota Street Garden with the Blue Ribbon Greening Award for Urban Farms last year.