Urban gardens have become a familiar sight in Philadelphia—from the Mill Creek Farm to the west, the Schuylkill River Park Community Garden in Center City and Greensgrow Farms in Kensington.
The University is now part of this growing urban farming landscape. The Penn Garden, founded and run by students, is a food-producing green oasis located at the foot of Rodin College House on Locust Walk. The garden began as an idea proposed by students taking the class, “Sustainability at Penn,” in the fall of 2009. It came into being with financial support from Penn’s Green Fund.
The idea behind the Penn Garden is for it to be a place where members of the University community can grow their own food and learn about issues of food production and agriculture. “It’s really important for people to know where their food comes from and if possible, to control where food comes from,” says Maura Goldstein, a College senior who is helping to oversee plantings and activities at the garden. “We’re facilitating that process.”
The garden has 10 beds of vegetables—eight beds that are 4’x12’ and two that are 8’x10’. Because of its small size, the garden is not designed to be a major source of food for the University. “We’re not necessarily changing the food landscape of campus,” explains Goldstein. “We’re making it possible for people to have a direct relationship with that food.”
Samantha Beattie, a College junior who was one of the students who worked on the original proposal for the garden, says she hopes the garden inspires people to consider the origin of their food. “A lot of people just don’t think about where food comes from, especially in a city,” she says. “[This] reminds people you can still grow your own food in a city.”
The garden is also an important social space where students can connect with each other and members of the wider community. “It’s been really fun to be at the garden this summer,” adds Goldstein. “We do hard work, and sometimes, we do weeding and harvesting.” The garden draws about six people on each designated workday, mainly students, but also people who live and work in the community.
Growers get to keep their bounty, which this summer included different types of tomatoes, eggplant, fennel, mustard greens, bell peppers, jalapeños, onions and tomatillos. The crew just planted several fall and winter crops, including broccoli, kale, spinach and lettuce, and may plant some cauliflower. Goldstein says they plan to donate extra produce to the food pantry at St. Mary’s Church, which is located across Locust Walk from the garden, though so far, there haven’t been many veggies to spare. Since it is the garden’s first year, Beattie, Goldstein and others are learning by trial and error about the crops that are the most popular, and those that require some creativity with recipes, including jalapeños and mustard greens.
The vegetables are grown organically, without the use of any pesticides. Aside from a few beetles and tenacious early-season squirrels, Beattie says they’ve had good luck with the process.
The Penn Garden welcomes novice and experienced gardeners alike for help tending the 10 beds. On Sept. 19, the Garden will be a stop on West Philly Gardens Day, which allows the public to tour and learn about different community gardens across the neighborhood. The Penn Garden is also helping to host a Sept. 29 screening of the documentary, “Food Fight,” and a discussion with the film’s director Chris Taylor. The garden crew will also be participating in Penn’s annual Food Week, held Oct. 18 to 22.
Going forward, Beattie says they hope to attract more academic and community involvement with the garden, bringing speakers to campus and hosting harvest dinners at the site. “[The garden] is about more than just picking and harvesting,” says Beattie. “We really want to be a community space where students get together and learn about community agriculture and what it means.”
To learn more about the Penn Garden, visit its website at http://thepenngarden.wordpress.com.
Originally published on September 16, 2010