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PHS ups the greening game for spring

Happy Earth Day! As Philadelphia’s abundant collection of magnolias, pears and cherry blossoms already starts to rain down, carpeting streets in an always-surprising profusion of pink and white, we’re reminded that these legacies of tree plantings past are a great start to beautifying our city. 

But they’re not enough, believes Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. According to Becher, great cities need careful tending, and a helping hand or two when it comes to sprucing up. That’s why, he says, PHS — and a cast of partners — are planning on seriously upping the game in the coming weeks.

“Civic landscaping efforts are our postcards,” he says. “We need to create billboards for how people can push the horticultural envelope.”

It’s not surprising that Becher names Chicago’s downtown streetscape — especially the overflowing floral medians along Michigan Avenue — as the prime example of what can be done. Now shorthand (almost a cliche) for a successful urban beautification project, the effort came to fruition on Becher’s watch, when he served as Chief of Staff for the city’s parks department. Philadelphia, he says, could learn a lesson or two from it.

Strolling — does this hyperkinetic mover and thinker ever really stroll? — along 20th Street, Becher pointed out grounds for improvement. “Why not begin right in front of our offices?,” he asks. “This intersection should be an experiment, a trial area for urban landscapes.” 

PHS long ago planted up the gas station across the street, and a row of not uninspiring planters does surround its own building. “Still, we can do more,” Becher exhorts. “I don’t want people to think of this as the building with the green neon strip, I want them to think of it as the building with amazing horticulture.” 

One idea: instead of the standard spike plant emerging from a hub of too-familiar pansies, why not accomplish the same look but in a more unexpected way? Corn, perhaps, with bean climbing up their stalks? “People need to realize that vegetables can look amazing!” Becher says, once again using one of his favorite words. It is, after all, PHS’s mission to illustrate the greater possibilities of horticulture, and to help individuals and organizations achieve them.

PHS is not infallible, though, Becher admits. “We’re hired by Avenue of the Arts to take care of the planters along the street,’ he points out, by way of example. “But I don’t believe we have the right palette or plant materials in them. There’s too much going on in the way of plantings and planters, and so it doesn’t read as cohesive.” 

A walk down Broad Street confirms his apprehension. At least two kinds of planters dominate, and they’re erratically placed, sometimes clustered, sometimes standing forlornly alone at a corner, tucked against a newsstand. On the east side of the street, the planters contain wispy willows, with no underplantings. On the west side, measly evergreens are stuck in differently-designed planters; they also stand unadorned.

The whole effect smacks of a Charlie Brown desperateness, not a lush, coordinated landscaping effort. And, because they’re so sparsely planted and sloppily arranged, pedestrians have taken to using them as places to dump empty coffee cups and discarded advertising flyers. 

“People don’t really see these, so they don’t respect them,” Becher says. Infuse them with a little color, depth, and scale — how ’bout daylilies, sage, and Russian grasses? he tosses off — and make sense of the grouping, and they’ll be transformed into a statement of civic pride.

“It’s not really that difficult or expensive,” he says. “It’s all about making sure that in the public realm, design is paid attention to.”

To get people sitting up and taking notice, PHS has some plans brewing. Here’s what we can look forward to, starting in mid-May:  

  • Reusing Flower Show displays: At St. Cements Church, down the block from PHS headquarters, plans are in the works to relocate some of the furnishings and decor used for Target’s show-stopping Smith & Hawken installation at this year’s Show. And, on Logan Circle, the carousel animal topiaries scattered through the Parisian garden at the Show will live again in the landscape around the Swann Memorial Fountain. 
  • City in Bloom:” This expanded version of “City Hall in Bloom” will replant and refresh our center of governance, but also extend to other nearby areas like Love Park.
  • Flower Power on the Parkway: Becher would like to see the “lids” — the areas that cross over 676 — come alive with color. The Free Library and The Franklin Institute come ready-made for the opportunity, with tattered beds outside their front doors just begging for a little horticultural love.  Discussions are underway with both institutions. “The Parkway is, really, the city’s botanical garden,” observes Becker.
  • Green Machine: A dolled-up PHS van complete with a team of gardening experts, will work with park group volunteers in planning and caring for existing planting beds and planters. Along the way, the team will keep an eye out for opportunities for . . .
  • Random Acts of Greenness: This program encourages the citizenry to take matters into their own hands, gently. Troll through a new web site that serves as a collecting point for photos of eyesores and problem spots — or make note of your own bugaboos — and have at it. “Plant it up, then go away,” says Becher.  

The hope, says Becher, is that these efforts get everyone thinking about the possibilities. How about corporations and other institutions elsewhere around town? Comcast, for example, presents a great front of unified, stately, and well-planted planters on JFK Blvd (not so much on Arch Street), but the planter’s at the National Constitution Center could use some help. More, he says, could be done at public places like 30th Street Station and Independence Mall.

“We should expect every property owner to have great looking plant materials, have pots at the front doors, have their flags all nice and clean,” says Becher. “I’m going to be sending a letter out to the Building Owner and Managers Association, saying, ‘if you have planters, if you have banners, change them out…let’s just make sure that the city looks clean and fresh’.

“There’s one planter,” he continues, interrupting himself. “It drives me crazy. I pass by it, every day and when I see that same old dead yew that’s been there since last summer, I want to just take it and yank it out!”

Call it a random act of greenness.

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