The secret garden: Community garden a hidden jewel

    On a hot afternoon in July many kids would prefer to be playing video games inside.

    But David Fowler, fifteen, is squinting at a golden squash blossom, drawing its likeness.

    Fowler says he couldn’t think of a better way to spend his day than outside. “I love the serenity of being out in the open and around wildlife”. 


    Fowler is one of the dozen students in the garden club at Mastery Pickett. This summer he joined the “art in the garden” club run by local artist Elisabeth Nickles, whose work has been installed at the Philadelphia airport and the SEPTA station at 63rd and Market streets.

    The Mastery Pickett garden sits within school grounds, but is hidden from the street like a secret. The bounty of vegetables sprawls across the site, and there is no gate to stop it. Despite living in the neighborhood for years Nickles said she found the garden serendipitously after she learned that a friend was volunteered there. She saw the open plot of land and fell in love with working in the soil. 

    Admittedly not particularly a green thumb, Nickles says the creation of life struck her. “It is a form a meditation in a sense,” she said. Despite the lack of street traffic Nickles says visitors stop by frequently. “I’ve had little boys jump the [school] fence and spend like four hours in the dirt and just love it…they were eating fresh spinach and they were like wow, that’s amazing. To me that’s so satisfying that they were so curious.”

    Over three years ago there was no garden.  In its place were cracked concrete tennis courts that were essentially abandoned for sports, “It was a local hang out spot,” remembers Meredith McGlinchey who was teaching English at Mastery Pickett charter school at the time. Prostitution was common at the vacant lot.

    McGlinchey was determined to change that. With the help of organizations like City Harvest, the Wyck house, and some Mastery Charter staff alongside volunteers — a community garden was born. It’s a usable and positive space now,” says McGlinchey.“That’s the difference”. McGlinchey says that part of the plan for the garden was to encourage local kids to eat more fresh food. The garden is not just for show. Students, community members and organizers share the generous food bounty together. Some of the community plots are open to the neighborhood for planting and harvest, while others are “rented” for a mere $10 a year to neighbors who want a kitchen garden but don’t have the space. The donation goes back into supplies for the garden. Organizers experimented with the entire garden being open to the community and they found the work was overwhelming. They say the mix of private and public seems to work well. FRESH GROWN

    Through a partnership with City Harvest, a program of the Philadelphia Horticulture society where local prison inmates start plants from seed, the Mastery Pickett garden received seedlings to plant in the spring among other donations. In turn organically grown vegetables are donated to the local food pantry, Germantown Crisis Ministries, run by the First Presbyterian Church on Chelten Ave. This past Spring, volunteer Tom Grabe who spends countless hours harvesting food says that he brings about thirty pounds of vegetables to the pantry each week. “Mostly collard greens and kale,” he said. FUTURE PLANS

    The “art in the garden” club run by Nickles is in full swing. She will use the student sketches of plants as studies for a mural that will be created on a nearby wall. Plans are in the works for medicinal plants and flowers, building a patio for students to have an outdoor space, and a fresh food stand run by students.  “I don’t know what they’re called,” said Fowler as he tried to explain how beautiful squash leaf veins are to him. “They are just so interesting,” he continues drawing, sitting under a makeshift tent on the edge of the garden. In the future Fowler hopes to work in a job where he can be creative. “I think its important for people to be creative because the process slows you down and you have think about something, not just what is but what it could be,” he said nodding to the lush scenery behind him.

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