“I used to love this thing called ‘garbage pie,'” said Drew Becher, who as a kid spent time on his grandmother’s farm in Ohio.
“It’s pretty much all the vegetables that are going bad, and she just put a lot of sugar in it and made it really nice. But everything was used. It was probably those vegetables we smooshed with our Tonka trucks.”
Gastronomically, Becher grew up straddling the fence. While his mother’s side of the family came from an agrarian background, the other side was suburban. In the 1950s, that meant lots of canned and frozen foods.
“I never liked Brussels sprouts, because I always had frozen ones and I never really had fresh ones,” he says.
As the president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Becher understands the yin and yang of urban agriculture. Cities need green space; cities need development more. People want fresh produce; most people don’t want to lift heaven and earth to get it. Community gardens are a pleasant distraction; community gardens cannot make a substantial impact on urban blight.
“Community gardens are sometimes not understood by the community as a whole,” said Becher, standing in the latest PHS pop-up garden in Rittenhouse Square. It’s a temporary showcase garden in a vacant lot on Walnut Street, where lunchers and picnickers can glean ideas on how to till their own back yard, balcony, or potted porch. “In the last couple years that has sort of changed and perception has changed.”
With neighborhood cooperation, social activists, and the coordination of the PHS City Harvest program, Philadelphia community gardens have grown 180,000 pounds of vegetables, feeding about 1,000 families a week. It is a chain linking people all over the city, beginning at greenhouses tended by prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road, whose seedlings are distributed to community gardens in neighborhoods all over the city, whose produce is then distributed to Philadelphia food pantries.
“That is our City Harvest program, recognized throughout the country” said Becher. “Other cities are wondering how to start that particular program, which is pretty cool.”
A goal of 1 million trees
Growing food is just part of PHS programs. In his previous position as executive director of the New York Restoration Project, Becher oversaw the planting of hundreds of thousands of new trees in the New York boroughs. He has transplanted that drive to Southeast Pennsylvania, where he is pushing to plant 1 million trees. PHS also maintains some of Philadelphia’s most beautiful places: the Art Museum sculpture garden, the Rodin Museum’s newly restored garden, Logan Square, and Penn’s Landing, to name a few.
It’s the pop-up garden, with its rougher urban aesthetic and recycled-and-reclaimed construction, that got PHS into one of the most prestigious art festivals in the world. This fall, the Venice Biennale will feature a presentation by the Horticultural Society about last year’s pop-up, at 20th and Market streets.
That vacant property, next to the Independence Blue Cross skyscraper, was more of a demonstration garden than a hard-core working farm. Tens of thousands of visitors wandered the beds, fingered the pepper plant leaves, and saw what gardening could be.
The trick is to make gardening work. PHS coordinates a Growers Alliance of about 80 urban producers who are making money at this, producing gourmet greens and heirloom tomatoes for area restaurants.
It’s a for-profit venture, but nobody is getting rich off this. Yet. “Hey, it could be Philadelphia’s Industrial Revolution 2.0,” said Becher.