Making a go of urban gardens

    All over Philadelphia spring plantings are sprouting in backyards and rooftops. Many gardners vegetables for their own tables. But some will be making a little cash. An urban farming initiative is encouraging people to put their money where their mouth is.


    This is Nic Esposito. He loads bales of hay into the back of a pickup truck when he’s not in his office as volunteer coordinator for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

    It’s not as glamorous as the community garden where you throw some seeds on the ground, stare up in to the sky and it’s a beautiful day. When you spend your day shoveling compost, or sitting in a greenhouse constantly transplanting, or moving salt-hay bales, it’s different.

    Esposito is at a Green Resource Center in Germantown – designed to provide material support to gardners – like hay, seedlings, lumber, compost. It’s part of a new Horticultural Society program called the Community Gardning Alliance, or CGA, which teaches amateur farmers to make money off their produce. It’s a twist on Philadelphia’s City Harvest program, which encourages gardners to give their produce to charity.

    A lot of time you have a lot of energy going towards getting people healthy, whole foods that they need, but then the people who would start producing it to make it a much more sustainable system haven’t been looked at, and that’s what we’re starting to do.

    The 3-year, $300,000 grant project helps gardeners grow food, and Joan Reilly of the Horticultural Society says it will help them sell it.

    “People will not quit their day job, start to do this work and decide,” she said. “I really have the head and heart for this.”


    The CGA isn’t handing out money just so gardeners can play in vacant lots. In fact, farmers have to pay to play. Accepted applicants pay 100 dollar dues, and in return they recieve all that material support – like those hay bales. But perhaps most crucial: the Alliance connects its members with markets, co-ops, and restaurants who will buy their arugula, okra, and green beans.

    This year we’re very fortunate to partner with Weaver’s Way Co-op – they were able to get a refrigerated truck; growers who want to sell produce to Weaver’s – the truck will come by, pick up the produce, and they will be writing the checks out.

    To be part of the Grower’s Alliance you have to have access to land, either your own yard or a nearby vacant lot. Philadelphia has an estimated 40,000 vacant lots. But getting your hands in that land is not as easy as it once was.

    “The city used to give you leases, and you would feel secure that you would have that land year after year. There wasn’t development happening.”

    That is Ryan Kuke, working an innovative solution as he hauls compost. Instead of creating one large community garden, he assembled a network of backyards. So far he has convinced 8 homeowners in his Belmont neighborhood in West Philadelphia to give him access to their yards. The system requires a lot more leg work, but Kuke says it’s worth it because the city cannot pull the land out from under him when it wants to develop.

    Neighborhood gardening has a hidden history. Kuke hoes a row of cabbage at a halfway house. 10 years ago, some women living here kept their own garden in exactly the same spot. Yvette Shelton was one of them.

    Once we graduated, we left and they didn’t keep it up. Even our manager and supervisors that ran the facility, they moved on. There was no one to mentor the people who came after us.

    Ryan Kuke says the Grower’s Alliance is a more sustainable model because it’s based on commerce, not charity.

    “Instead of us being white people moving into the neighborhood and grow food and give it away…it creates a divide. If we want people to take food seriously, we have to have them engage in it in a way that has them be involved in production, consumption; and buying at true cost, that makes sense.”

    And it builds community. Kuke discovered many elderly people in his neighborhood freely dispense invaluable gardening and cooking advice learned from their youth. All he had to do was ask. I’m Peter Crimmins, WHYY news.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal