A miniature harvest.
A miniature harvest.
If the first phase of the summer season could be characterized by careful cultivation, planting and weeding (at least in theory…), the second phase can only be described as a frenzied spurt of activity as the garden began, in late July through early August, to burst into life.
Perhaps most notably, the tomato plants unclenched their fruit as bright red and yellow flesh ignited through the green foliage. Someone told me, after sampling some sweet cherry tomatoes, that it was like eating sunshine. These moments amaze me; when nature, seemingly without prompting, yields true treasures: a word that isn’t chosen lightly. As more and more communities and households find themselves in food poverty, the simplicity of fruits and vegetables cultivated with one’s own hands, alongside one’s neighbors and friends, becomes a precious commodity as well as a sort of lost art.
Truly, foraging through leaves, stems and yes, most certainly some weeds, in search of a dazzling purple eggplant or a herculean zucchini feels a lot like a quest for treasure or an easter egg hunt. In a garden, there are rewards. This however, implies challenges; obstacles from which, I think, rewards derive their value.
The Bennett Homes Community garden, like any other, provides a fair share of challenges. Obviously there is the challenge of working the land in order to produce something, namely fruits or vegetables. Here, the payoff is literal and rendered in physical terms; you work hard and sweat, dirt, water and sunlight come together to produce our harvests. But the same equation applies to community building, albeit with different components which are less tangible and perhaps more elusive. In the latter case, though, hard work and a governing sense of cultivation are essential.
This summer, the garden workers in conjunction with the CHA and several community members and friends sought to rear a literal space—the garden—as well as figurative one, that of a growing, thriving community. The first steps have been to invite people in and to hire helpers from the community itself as a means of breaking down any perceived barriers. After all, the garden is not the possession of any one person or group of people, not even the workers or the CHA, but in fact is a shared place for people to mutually care for, together.
As we move forward, this message needs to be broadcasted more loudly and clearly. That it hasn’t been, is a failing on my part.
Now, we’re looking to integrate various facets and resources from the surrounding area, such as the Booker T. Washington Center where classes and community activities are regularly held, in order to construct a more comprehensive plan moving forward. We want to see how these parts and people can work in conjunction. At any rate, it’s an exciting time. There are more things growing and on the horizon looms the fall season.
Perhaps garden tasks can largely be broken down into three broad categories: maintenance, planting and teaching. Maintenance is the broadest and most time consuming of the three; it includes jobs such as weeding, watering, pruning and pest extermination. Where maintenance ensures that the garden is in good health, planting is what provides a garden in the first place. Furthermore, it allows kids (and adults) get their hands dirty and become more intimate with the Earth in a way that’s not necessarily a part of (sub)urban culture. This usually happens a few times a month, while maintenance is conducted daily. Lastly, teaching overlaps with all the jobs in the garden, but its structure depends on who is available. If there’s a large group, a lesson might be conducted on the given tasks which will be performed in that day. However, if only a few folks are around, things are demonstrated “organically”; as they come up.
These three categories underlie a more general goal for any summer garden; which is mostly a dual-pronged one. The garden should be a functioning, healthy and productive space where kids and any other interested community members can learn, develop and share basic gardening skills that will allow them to operate in the garden and perhaps take an interest in growing their own fruits and vegetables. These broader goals in turn gesture towards perhaps the greatest, broadest objective: to put “community” back into “community garden.”
To be sure, the garden even now, provides a wonderful source of education and nutrition to many individuals, especially children and seniors who frequently come and enjoy the space. If you stop by the Bennett Homes this summer, you’ll notice a team of individuals comprised of local college students and, more importantly, groups of young (and sometimes older) community members working against the weeds, in the sun, together. It’s a fun battle, one that’s very much in progress.
Fall at the garden this year has been all about sweet potatoes. Everybody had tons of fun digging in the dirt to find the largest ones they could, and we filled a large basket many weeks in a row. Just when we thought they had to be done, we found another whole basketful when we dug up the beds!
We also had tomatoes (so many tomatoes!), peppers, and eggplant until mid-October, and those berry bushes we planted in the summer began producing the most delicious raspberries. Every week, one of the first things we would do upon arriving to the garden was go look for the few ripe raspberries we could pick and eat immediately.
We planted one more round of greens at the end of October, and by the beginning of December they were ready to harvest and by far the most amazingly tender, fresh, crisp, sweet kale and collards I have ever eaten. All the neighbors who took them seemed to think so too, as it was easy to get rid of a large bag after knocking on only a few doors.
At the end of November, we had our annual end-of-season pizza party, complete with decorate-your-own-certificate, mask-making, and pizza creating. We had a pretty good turnout, with lots of old and new faces, and a lot of parents too! Check out more pictures on our Flickr!
All in all we are very happy with how distribution has gone this fall. Each week we have been able to give away nearly everything we harvested and people seem excited to be receiving the produce. When people answer their doors, the likelihood they take vegetables is pretty high. We’ve have had a number of great conversations with people about food they are going to make with the vegetables, or how happy they are to be receiving them because they are not otherwise able to obtain them. Looking toward the spring, we are hoping to build on this increase in interest and recognition in the immediate neighborhood of the garden by really kickstarting a regular distribution schedule. We’re hoping to get some teens biking around the further reaches of the Bennett with our new BIKE CART! that looks something like this:
So our big project for the winter is getting some old bikes all fixed up and ready to go. We’re hoping people will stop by to fix up their own bikes as well. We’re all in the process of learning about bikes together, so if you know a lot feel free to give us some tips!
That’s all for now, we hope you all have nice holidays and enjoy the new year. We’ll be back in the garden January 26th to work on bikes and do some arts and crafts!
Though it’s now months past, we have yet to share updates from the end of the summer at the garden! The beginning of August was a great finish to summer camp full of tons of different activities. We spent some days talking about the food system, which included chalking out a huge map on the basketball court, tracing the path corn takes from a farm to the store shelf as popcorn. We used up some of our thousands of tomatoes to make our own pizzas for lunch one day in the community center, topping them with freshly picked peppers, basil, and zucchini from the garden.
One of the most popular craft projects we did was painting small pots and planting our own geraniums in them. We had some good conversations about how to best care for our plants, though many people left them behind at the garden for decoration.
Our Bennett Homes Community Farm t-shirts also came in, which was a really exciting day! The back of the shirts say, “We grow our own,” and we spent the afternoon brainstorming a list of different things we grow in the garden. It was a great activity to stop and think about all the things that happen every day in the garden: growing food, friendships, self-confidence, beauty, fun, health, skills, our minds, and community. We had fabric markers so everyone could decorate the back of their shirts with whatever words or drawings they wanted, which was followed by a photo shoot with everyone wearing their shirts. For the rest of the day, you could spot garden people from far away in our electric green shirts.
One of the summer’s highlights was the Block Party we held in the garden after the last day of camp. We handed out invitations around the Bennett, hoping to bring in community members who have been involved in the garden in the past/present, as well as some new people. We had a pretty good turnout, especially from youth who haven’t come out to the garden frequently or at all. Some older kids from camp went around and surveyed adults who might be interested in receiving produce, to help us inform how our new produce distribution service will be organized (more news on this soon!). We also planted a ton of berry bushes in our empty beds and harvested and distributed tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplant, and watermelon. It was a fun evening listening to music, working together in the garden, and meeting new people!
Overall, we’re so happy with how the summer ended up. Rachel, Jesse, Blaine, Laura, Thomas, and I got to work with such a wonderful group of kids, and it was awesome to be able to spend so much time at the garden every week! We’re so thankful for everyone who was involved with and supported camp.
Stayed tuned for another post soon with updates from the fall season (then hopefully we’ll be back on track and won’t fall so far behind again!). We’ve also uploaded new photos to our Flickr, so be sure to check that out too!
We hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving!!
Made by Tyron Payne, an 18-year-old Cooperative member and Chester resident.
This summer has been our favorite season at the garden so far. In the past few blog posts, you’ve already seen how many physical growths we’ve been through. We have tons of newly constructed beds, more berry bushes on the way, healthy crops (other than a few pest issues), shipping containers (which have gotten power-washed and varnished), and we just recently got a double barrel composter donated!
In addition to all these developments, we have finally begun doing some of the things we’ve talked about doing for a few years – starting to come up with a curriculum, planning more garden-based learning activities, and just spending more time at the garden with a growing core group of awesome kids. We started our first ever summer camp, which means we’re in the garden three days a week from 11am – 4pm, in addition to regular open gardening hours the times a week. This schedule has given us so much more time to focus on things beyond garden maintenance. We have a lot more opportunity to learn and talk together, to explore why we’re growing what we’re growing, what it means to be healthy, cook some of our harvest, and doing a ton of other activities.
Now in our forth week of camp, we have a steady group of campers ranging from ages two to thirteen. It’s so fun to be around such a group of energetic and creative kids. We’ll let the photos do most of the talking:
Volcanoes- What would happen if the hill next to the garden was a volcano? We talked about the dangers and benefits, shared facts about Pompeii and fertile volcanic ash, and made our own clay models, some complete with surrounding plant life and towns, which we later erupted with baking soda, vinegar, and creative food coloring.
Superhero masks- If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Cooking- Making bread with zucchini fresh from our garden, with a special addition of chocolate chips!
Body Tracings- We talked about what it means to be healthy- eating well, exercising, being friendly to other people. Then everyone got a big piece of paper to trace their body,on which they drew things they could eat to be healthy in their stomachs, healthy things they could do at their hands and feet, and healthy things they could say or think in their heads.
Getting wet in the sprinklers. We’ve had lots of water fights to try to stay cool!
In addition to camp, we’re having group dinners once a week with the Chester Housing Authority Cooperative, which includes camp families and participants in the health initiative program run through the CHA. We all get together to cook, using ingredients from the garden and from Media’s Hillside Farm, where we have a CSA.
We’ve got two more weeks of camp left and a lot of harvesting to do! We’ve already enjoyed some squash, cucumbers, and basil. Now the eggplant, peppers, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes are on their way. And, of course, there are two full beds of beautiful watermelons – everyone’s favorite!
There are lots of new things happening at the garden, so keep checking back to see what we’re up to! You can see more photos on our Flickr.
Also, we’d love for you to get involved, too, so if you have any time, please come out!
Open Gardening Hours:
4:00 – 6:00 pm
Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday
- T & R
We’ve been hard at work at the Back of the Bennett lately, building new beds and planting new crops. We recently planted sweet potatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, watermelon, eggplant, okra, and tomatoes in our newly constructed beds – more crops that we’ve ever planted before, which means we’ll have plenty to sell and distribute by the time our produce stand is constructed. Everyone’s already excited to harvest the watermelons, and some kids will taste blackberries and the raspberries for the first time at the end of the summer.
We also learned recently that berry bushes require long, narrow beds – 16×2, instead of the 16×4 beds we’d been building for everything else. Last weekend, new and old garden visitors joined in to fill our newly constructed narrow beds with dirt, and help plant tomatoes and blackberry bushes. We realized that these blackberries may have originated in Chester! They’re a special variety of heirloom blackberries historically from southeastern Pennsylvania, which means our bushes are about as local as it gets. All the kids were excited to taste fruit that’s originally from Chester.
Yesterday evening, everyone joined in to water all our crops before today’s heat wave descended. Some kids constructed a beautiful mud pie with the fallen unripe tomatoes, and we discussed the usefulness of composting for creating nutrition-rich soil before dumping the mud pie into our new compost pile.
Everyone’s excited about our newly arrived shipping containers, and we’re getting ready to plant almost 200 more berry bushes as soon as they’re delivered! It’s great to see the garden growing so fast, and all the kids are really excited to see how quickly new beds and new plants are springing up, thanks to their hard work.
After 10-20 years of use, a shipping container would typically be scrapped as industrial waste. But there’s been a growing trend to reuse and retrofit these giant rectangular steel blocks – transforming them into restaurants, hotels, homes, and maybe, urban farms. Aprisa Mexican Cuisine in Portland, Oregon is operating out of a recycled shipping container – it’s easily transportable, semi-permanent, and not too costly to retrofit. Podponics, a company based in Atlanta, is remaking old shipping containers into mini hydroponic farms. And here in Chester, at the back of the Bennett, we’re getting ready to transform our recently obtained shipping containers.
Unlike our recently constructed wooden beds, they may not immediately hold dirt, seedlings, and water (although a rooftop garden remains a strong possibility). But as we cut out windows and doors, link the two together, and increase the ventilation, we’ll gain a multiuse indoor space just beside our growing community farm.
By linking together our two parallel, 40-ft structures, we can form one large indoor, insulated space, which has already proved useful as a larger storage space (much more durable than our shed). We intend to add windows and doors, a staircase to the roof, and a produce stand to sell our own fresh produce from. The inside will become a bike storage and repair space, while also offering us indoor space protected from the sun and rain, that we can use to hold community gatherings.
The roofs may soon hold an elevated garden bed, but could also serve as a stage – perfectly located for viewers seated on the hill behind the community farm. We also might install solar panels we can use to power our sound system and power tools.
Beyond retrofitting and insulating, we’re excited to redesign and repaint these giant steel blocks together. The burnt orange sides offer a perfect space for a community mural. And it’ll be great to have a space to relax and escape the sun this summer, especially once windows, doors, and produce stands provide some well-needed cross-ventilation.
So far, there’s been some confusion and a lot of excitement – no one’s accustomed to talking about shipping in the garden, but everyone’s enthusiastic about exploring our new space, constructing a produce stand, and maybe doing some painting!