PHS “Pops Up” at 20th and Market

Bloggers, skyscraper-dwellers, and passers-by have been noticing something going on at the corner of 20th and Market for a few weeks now. Monday, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society made it official, throwing open the doors to its largest pop-up garden yet.  

“I’ve hated this lot for decades,” said Mayor Michael Nutter at the opening. During this afternoon’s event, Nutter called the space “the ultimate of urban gardens, arguably, in the United States,” adding that the project demonstrates that “paying attention to what we do with land, and how we use it, matters so much.” He went on to predict that the garden will become a “great attraction” for the region.

Drew Becher, president of PHS, pointed out that just about everything in the garden was reused, recycled or repurposed — including several old parking meters, into which visitors can put spare change to donate to City Harvest, a PHS program that distributes fresh produce to the city’s underserved.

The pop-up garden transforms a tidy but vacant lot of nearly 32,000-square feet into a temporary oasis that will be open to the public on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons from noon to 2 p.m. It will stay in place until late October, to re-appear at another site next Spring.   Developer Brandywine Realty Trust and co-owner Independence Blue Cross are lending the land, rent-free, with funding for the $80,000 project coming from the William Penn Foundation and other corporate partners. Dozens of volunteers have been toiling the last week or so to get everything into the ground, lay down paths of sand and mulch, and arrange wooden raised beds into tidy rows.

Vacant since the late 1980s, the lot has gone through a rotation of bank ownerships and unsuccessful development initiatives. Brandywine acquired it earlier this year, with plans to turn the property into a mixed-use development.

“Ever since we bought this property, we’ve been working to change the perception of it as something that wasn’t saying great things about the state of the Central Business District,” Gerard Sweeney, the Trust’s CEO, told PlanPhilly in a separate interview. “This pop- up garden makes an elegant transition between now and early 2012, when we plan to commence with at least part of our development plans.”

Sweeney acknowledged that he “certainly thought about” the potential downsides of having people getting attached to the garden and wanting it to stay and, conversely, of critics lambasting the prettification of open space at the expense of density. But the fact that this is part of a broader program with a finite end, and that the city’s approval processes for development are likely to continue beyond the growing season, “gave us a lot of comfort,” he said.

For PHS, the garden is part of an initiative to keep the Flower Show top of mind 365 days a year, according to Claire Baker, associate director of PHS’ Philadelphia Green. Two other pop-ups have already quietly been unveiled: the reinstallation at Logan Circle of nine carousel figures from the 2011 Philadelphia International Flower Show, and the planting of a plethora of palms, ferns, and tropical flowers outside of PHS Headquarters to herald 2012’s theme of Hawai’i.

The Market Street lot uses an exhibit by Temple University’s horticulture students as its centerpiece. Titled ‘ecolibrium,’ the interactive display merges themes of balance (between landscapes and buildings, light and shade, ecology and progress) with formal French garden components.

Another important component of this garden is a series of raised beds that will grow vegetables, grains, and herbs and distribute them to area chefs. Proceeds from the resulting menu items will go to City Harvest. The chefs are Daniel Stern (R2L), Marcie Turney (Barbuzzo), Guillermo Tellez (Square 1682), Chris Scarduzio (Table 31), Michael Schulson (Sampan), and Lynn Rinaldi (Paradiso). They were on hand at today’s event.

Concurrent with the overall mission of PHS, the site is “an installation, as much as it is a garden,” Baker told PlanPhilly. “We know we wanted this to be a working site, a demonstration of what it’s like to grow food and to give people ideas about taking control of their own food production, no matter what kind of space they have to work with.”

Docents, staff, and volunteers will man the garden to answer questions and to help visitors figure out what plants work best for their own gardens.

The site’s more bucolic aspects include a huge meadow of red clover, grains and grasses, all interspersed with cutting gardens bursting with zinnias, sunflowers, and cosmos. All of these are to come, though: for now, signs mark where seeds have been sown. Nearby, a plot of blue spruces waits to mature into Christmas trees, and displays of PHS Gold Medal Award winners illustrate plants specifically chosen for their hardiness. Live topiaries that originally appeared at the grande finale of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts on Broad Street stand sentry at various points throughout the garden. 

Plans call for the garden to be heavily programmed. On the eastern end of the lot, an open area is reserved for lectures and workshops and, on select evenings, movies, which will be projected onto its wall. And, if the project is as popular as the Mayor predicts, we can all hope that daylight hours will be extended, too.

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