Food: Spring Gardens Volunteer Coordinator Reveals the Human Side of Nature

The Spring Gardens Community Garden is a hidden gem in an urban jungle, stretching across an entire city block. Located in The Spring Garden neighborhood between 18th and 19th Street, the community garden was founded in 1995 by residents of the surrounding area.

Prior to the garden’s inception, the lot it now occupies used to be a vacant plot in an area impoverished with crime and drug infestations. The local community led the action to remove the drug dealers and vowed to turn the vacant, run-down plot into something beautiful, and The Spring Gardens was born.

Today, the Spring Gardens Community Garden is a flourishing organization that boasts 200 gardeners. The garden is highly-coveted, with a waiting list of approximately 12 to 18 months and requirement of a minimum of 10 volunteer hours. However, if an individual regularly volunteers in the garden to weed, plant, etc, the wait time is typically diminished.

 “We try to be accommodating to everyone,” said Volunteer Coordinator Liz McIlvaine.

Once off the waiting list, a gardener receives her or his own plot for a nominal fee of $30 for a small plot, $60 for a large.

McIlvaine believes one factor as to why the waiting list is long is due to the lack of farming culture in Philadelphia.

“I think people like to get their hands in the soil,” McIlvaine said. “We’ve lost our farming culture so much in the last 50 years. Getting dirty and taking care of plants is really human and people really need it, especially living in the city.”

The Spring Gardens also hosts a multitude of events to take part in once an individual becomes a member, including a food truck night, community parties and even weddings.

“It’s a nice big neighborhood and a lot of diversity is in this area so it’s been great,” McIlvaine said. “All kinds of people are interested in being a part of the garden and have been…they have pride in their garden spaces and the neighborhood loves this garden. It’s a great group of people and I really enjoy my community here.”

McIlvaine lightheartedly explained that everyone vies for growing the most food, but it is all in healthy fun. Gardeners even help contribute to the City Harvest that occurs in Philadelphia every year.

The City Harvest is run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), who has been funding this program for the past 12 years. Currently, The City Harvest has plots located in The Spring Gardens to bring healthy and authentic food to homeless shelters in Philly.

Anne Cook has been the City Harvest Program Manager for the past 11 years, and is one of the original gardeners at The Spring Gardens.

“They [PHS] have funding, and they provide us the materials to grow things in the garden at the appropriate times,” Cook said.

The City Harvest plot seems to be prospering this season.

“This is one of our best years ever because we were really on top of things,” Cook said. “We’ve already distributed about 110 pounds of food since the beginning of the season. We’re hoping to grow about 2,000 pounds total this season.”

She explained that one of the most rewarding parts about the City Harvest is to see first-hand positive change in people’s lives, which have a deep impact on the individual and the community abroad alike. Cook explained that there is a strong sense of goodwill among the volunteers since there is no obligation to attend.

And then there is the peacefulness that comes with gardening.

“I’m here a lot,” Cook said. “It’s like zen meditation for me. It’s good to garden on your own, and it’s good to garden communally.”

Spring Gardens Plot Assignment and Plot Monitor Committee Chair, Pat Haft, has been a part of the garden for 15 years and said that gardening is essential to her being.

“I like getting my hands in the soil and reaping the harvest, tomatoes especially,” Haft said. “I have a bounty of produce so sharing it with friends and family is very nice. And I’ve met people in the neighborhood I probably never would have met or spoken to so I think it’s a really big asset.”

Pat Skyler, who works on the Plot Assignment Committee and for the City Harvest, has been gardening at The Spring Gardens since 1996. Skyler mainly grows hot and sweet peppers in her neatly organized plot, devoting many hours to her pristine garden. Skyler likes the feeling of tranquility in the garden and the happiness it brings people.

The Spring Gardens Community Garden has been serving the local Philadelphia community for the past 23 years, welcoming beginner and veteran gardeners alike.

The happiness that this garden brings to its members and neighbors, as well as the good of the harvest for the Earth and for humans, proves how deeply it is needed. The passionate gardeners and volunteers who work tirelessly safeguard a bright future for The Spring Gardens and its surrounding neighborhood.

-Text, images and video by Helene Blau and Savannah Pukanecz.


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