A garden that grows community in Germantown

The sun was hard at work on the corner of Wayne Avenue and Hansberry Street last weekend as vendors under canopies, or the shade of street trees lined the sidewalk. It was the second Saturday flea market at the Hansberry Garden and Nature Center, and while longtime garden member Patricia Schogel came up with her first bright red tomato of the year, the purpose of the day was more fundamental – keeping people involved.

“It really is a community garden with a community of people,” she said tending a plant that wended its way through part of a brass bed frame in her garden’s raised oak bed. “It’s not just the growing of vegetables.”

For a place with roots in guerrilla gardening, where squatters planted their seeds in a lot that had for years been a dumping ground for trash and worse, the Hansberry Garden today brims with life.  Vital statistics: Forty-four raised beds, a City Harvest community food site, 39 member families and an outdoor classroom for hundreds of elementary school students each year.

Held every other Saturday from May through September for more than 5 years now, the flea market and bake sale that Schogel was taking a short break from have become staples to keeping the garden going.

Her husband, Dave Schogel, a founding member of the garden and former treasurer of the non profit that runs it, can tell you why.

“It is expensive to keep a community garden going,” he said. “It costs almost $9000 dollars a year to keep this garden going.”

So, twice per month, Hansberry opens its gates to visitors and it sells tables on the sidewalks to vendors, many of whom have been setting up shop there for years.

Inside the garden Hansberry has its own tables of goods donated by the community for sale. And outside there is the Hansberry bake sale and barbecue, famous in the neighborhood, featuring: chicken, burgers, hot dogs and veggie burgers for the vegans visitors, not to mention chocolate chip banana bread and double chocolate brownies made by Pat Schogel, lemon blueberry squares made by Kathy Miller and zucchini muffins made from a recent harvest in the garden.

The flea markets yield about $500 to $600 per month – not enough for what the garden really needs, so there are other efforts too, like membership dues, direct person-to-person solicitation from friends and community members, and grant applications, mostly through local politicians and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

The trick is finding fundraising efforts that won’t kill garden members to organize. In this way, Philadelphia Green, a PHS community gardening effort, has been the garden’s biggest ally since it formed in 2002.

Dave and Pat Schogel went over a large photo album from that period. It showed the overgrown lot and all the work that went into clearing it. This was before any of the original 8 founding members had permission to be on either of the two lots that now make up the property.

The group became “garden tenders” through Philadelphia Green and learned how to start a community garden. At first it wasn’t official at all.

“We were squatters essentially,” Pat Schogel said.

But eventually the group got permission to tend the land.

With continued help from Philadelphia Green, mostly in the form of supplies and instruction, the gardeners cleared off the lot section by section and put down seven raised beds. Soon that number grew to 14 and then 21, then 34 and now 44 garden plots occupy the site, including a children’s garden, and several City Harvest plots, the produce from which PHS donates to food banks.

But it wasn’t until two years ago that the Hansberry gardeners experienced any security for their efforts. A grant from state Rep. Rosita Youngblood and all those years of bake sales and flea markets gave the group just about enough to buy the privately owned lot at 5148 Wayne, half of the garden’s footprint, for $25,000 at sheriff’s sale.

Then, this past December, the city finally responded to years of requests and agreed to donate the lot next door to the non profit group.

For years Hansberry has worked with the nearby John B Kelly Elementary School in a partnership with Chestnut Hill College and the Senior Environmental Corps at Center in the Park. This children’s educational effort puts between 300 and 500 kids into the garden each year for hands on water quality and food cycle lessons and it culminates in a tour of the college, lunch there and a college class taught by one of the professors.

To Pat Schogel these kinds of community activities are what make Hansberry so much more than just a place to raise vegetables.

Membership, she said, ranges from age 3 to 83 and it runs the full spectrum of ethnic groups in the neighborhood.

“It’s just always a good feeling,” she said. And she recalled when a friend who was unfamiliar with the garden got to a peek at one of the group’s social events. He was impressed with how diverse the membership was in age and ethnicity, and the fun they were having.

“He said, ‘whatever is going on here, I want to join,’” she recalled.


Click this link ror more about the Hansberry Garden and Nature Center.

Click here for a GTown Radio audio profile of Hansberry Garden. Scroll down.

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