Roxborough community garden sparks neighborhood growth

File this one under Grassroots Community Building: A Roxborough couple who loves gardening but lacks the time to do it offered strangers free plots in their large, sunny backyard. Right now, the flower and vegetable plants are only sprouts, but seeds of friendship are thriving.

Melinda Jaeb and fiance Kevin Hahn-Keith bought an old Victorian home on the 400 block of Lyceum Avenue last year — it would be kind to call it a fixer-upper — and have spent countless hours already doing rehab work on the interior. Meanwhile their backyard was getting short shrift, a difficult turn of events for Jaeb, an avid gardener who won horticulture awards in her last home.

“I don’t think anybody’s planted a flower here since 1892,” Jaeb said.

As the weather warmed, Jaeb came upon an idea: If she doesn’t have time to do the gardening, perhaps her neighbors might. She put a notice on an online neighborhood message board offering free garden plots in their yard, to anyone with the urge to grow something.

“We thought people would laugh, but by the next morning there were four people who were interested,” she said.

The terms were simple: Turn over your own plot, provide your own compost and soil, and a rain barrel for watering, be ready to tend your own area. In exchange, Hahn-Keith said, they’d give access to the backyard gardens for at least two years.

Michelle Hinshaw, who lives nearby on Green Lane, took a small plot to share with a friend, and planted a small crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, hot and sweet peppers, lettuce and a cantaloupe vine. Her own house has a backyard, though it’s shaded, so she jumped at the chance to grow vegetables.

“At first, I was shocked, I sort of kept waiting for them to charge us something,” she said. “Instead, we just found good neighbors.”

Of course, Jaeb and Hahn-Keith will get something out of it, eventually — the work being done on the half-dozen little backyard gardens is enriching and enhancing the soil for when the couple eventually finishes enough work inside that they have time to work outside.

Hinshaw said she intends to enlist her two daughters to help with the upkeep as a summer project.

“I do expect that they would go over and do a little watering, maybe a little weeding, certainly some harvesting,” she said. “Our whole world is interacting with a screen, so I wanted them to be able to take pride in something that has an organic quality to it.”

None of the neighbors who came out to garden knew each other previously, but in spending time together talking and working, many of them discovered they were friends-of-friends or had other neighborhood connections. All are relatively recent transplants to Roxborough, and the group gardening is a chance for a new community to grow.

“I was looking for some sunshine, but in the quest for that, we’ve ended up really extending our neighborhood,” Hinshaw said.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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