Flanked by rowhouses and a desolate parking lot in the Mill Creek section of West Philadelphia, the Aspen Farms community garden attracts many a curious eye. Sunflowers spill onto the sidewalk, and a look through the fence reveals heavy violet eggplants and rows of red Swiss chard, standing straight as soldiers. Families kneel among the greenery, wielding shears and gardening gloves, searching for the errant weed.
On Saturday morning, a small group of Bryn Mawr and Haverford students joined seniors from Parkway West High School, a special-admit school in West Philadelphia, in getting their hands dirty — pulling weeds, spreading dirt and clearing rocks under an overcast sky. Emily Wiseman BMC ’11 organized the trip, and was thrilled about the enthusiasm that greeted her e-mail.
“We actually had to have a wait list,” she said.
Wiseman, who works with the Civic Engagement Office, is very interested in sustainable farming and is planning to take next semester off to work for World Wide Opportunites on Organic Farms in southern Italy. She coordinated a sustainable partnership between Bryn Mawr and Parkway West with Zanny Alter BMC ’09. Since graduation, Alter has been working for Americorps and the CEO.
Parkway West students have a 120-hour service requirement for graduation, so Alter suggested the garden as a way to fulfill some of the hours.
“It’s a great way to get them involved,” she said, as girls snipped vines and marveled at a curiously patterned slug.
This lush oasis was originally row houses and a commercial laundromat until both were abolished in the sixties. In 1975, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society aided the community in clearing the land and Aspen Farms was born.
Aspen Farms is now known as a preserved “Keystone” garden, meaning it is protected from all future development and that it must be ready for display at all times.
Plot owners drifted in and out throughout the day to tend to their own raised beds and chat with Janice Trapp, co-president of the garden and a fixture there for over 25 years. Trapp admits that there are occasionally difficult plot owners who don't maintain their spaces, though it doesn’t happen often.
“We always try to help and work with people, but sometimes people just don’t want to work,” said Trapp.
There are about 35 plots on three-quarters of an acre, which also houses a tool shed, a gazebo and a small fishpond. Bright benches and painted periwinkles dot the center walkway. The garden maintains a compost, water reservoir and solar panels, whose electricity is used for a spotlight that floods a mural — a pastoral farming scene — at night.
Many of Aspen Farms’ growers are local, though some come from as far as south Philly to maintain their plots. Plot owners practice organic farming, refraining from the use of any chemicals. The plot rental fee is $50 for the growing season (about March through November) and the money helps defray the costs of water and the port-a-potty, as well as any other expenses.
Aspen Farms also works with City Harvest, a partnership that brings together the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, the Philadelphia Prison System, SHARE, a food cupboard distribution network and the Health Promotion Council. The collaboration is an effort to bring fresh produce to those for whom it would otherwise be unavailable.
Trapp know all of the gardeners by names, often dispensing tips and advice whenever possible. She loves her flowers, among them a towering rosebush and deep-red zinnias, but also grows okra, sweet potatoes, onions, leeks, fennel, asparagus, thyme, cabbage, rosemary, corn and once even experimented with cotton after having come across some on a trip down south.
Names of crops are etched into signs made with paint stirrers and a wood-burning kit.
“I love being here in the garden. I love it,” said Trapp, pointing out the different crops of various plot owners. “People don’t realize how good fresh food is — it’s like dessert. That’s why I love it.”
She often makes meals entirely from plot ingredients and lives across the street, close enough to run over and grab any produce she may need.
The afternoon closed with a barbecue in the gazebo. Looking around, Jamie Fialkoff BMC ’10 noted the deep sense of fellowship Aspen fosters.
“It’s nice for the community to be able to come together in such a beautiful space,” said Fialkoff.
One gardener, a boy of about eight, stood triumphantly over the watermelon he had just plucked from his family’s plot and succeeded in cracking open on the gazebo’s table. Janice smiled.
“It’s so much fun,” she said. “And it’s wonderful to know that as long as one person wants to garden, this will be here.”