In praise of the hardworking tree

Nature’s Miracle Worker

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

In the same way that friends in rural areas might know the difference between a tree branch hitting the side of the house and someone knocking on the door, city dwellers learn to distinguish—before we’ve even turned around—the sound of a car behind us from the hiss of the hydraulics on the bus we’re waiting for. We’re all animals, attuned to our habitat.

At the same time, we filter out and ignore much of what we regularly see and hear, and one element that we’re probably not paying close attention to are the trees around us that, among other good works, muffle the abrasive sounds of sirens and people.

After reading Jill Jonnes’ book “Urban Forests” I am even more appreciative of Philadelphia’s investment in our tree canopy—especially in disinvested neighborhoods—and our deep relationship with trees. Jonnes recounts the stories of various insect infestations in the last century, when entire neighborhoods, suburban and urban, rich and poor, were shorn of their tree canopy overnight, leaving mourning families and barren blocks, the trees loved but underappreciated until they were gone.

The stories made me think again about how lucky I am to have a mature elm in my neighbor’s backyard (though it’s being choked by ivy). In the front courtyard, another neighbor has a beautiful dogwood that just bloomed. A sugar maple that popped up six years ago in a patch of derelict dirt just steps from my door is now 30 feet high; I just pruned it so that its branches wouldn’t keep my petunias from blooming. And at the back of my house, there is a giant, forked male mulberry that I know is having an affair with the gorgeous fruiting female in the Old Swedes churchyard three blocks away. It’s hard not to think of them as people.

City trees do so much for us, we might as well list their vocation as “miracle worker.” If just those four humble trees around my house were taken down, there’s little chance that I would sit on the patio and hear birds: I’d be hearing more of I-95 instead. The neighbors and I would be peering into each others’ open windows in the summer instead of seeing the leaves rustle in the twilight. I’d be paying more in the summer for electricity, my basement would flood more often and I’d be breathing in more pollutants. 

Their avocation is providing us with beauty and a connection to nature that keeps our minds settled and our spirits soothed. They soften the hard edges of our buildings and our psyches. They also provide habitat for all kinds of mammals, insects and birds, which at my house, just a block from the four busy lanes of Washington Avenue, begin stirring and chirping at 4:30 a.m. My only-in-a-city neighbors include three opera singers on the same block, but also a hawk who makes a feathery mess of some of the less fortunate pigeons in the neighborhood, a cadre of squirrels who eat my bulbs, the occasional raccoon who scales the chain-link fence in my yard unphased by the barbed wire and an opossum who has taken to walking in the open back door at night in search of cat food while I’m quietly reading on the couch. We’ve surprised each other more than once, but the opossum is better at playing dead than I am, and once I had to just sit on the stairs waiting for her to wake up and find her way out. My tiny house is little more than a tent made out of bricks, and what’s a tent without trees?  

An arborist, unkindly, once called my mulberry a “weed tree.” If that’s true, then I have an announcement: I’m an unrepentant weed hugger. 

June: To-Do List

Illustration by Chris Bernhardt

Illustration by Chris Bernhardt

1. Protect your pets
Veterinarians recommend keeping pets on flea and tick preventatives all year round, but if you’ve fallen behind, now really is the time. Mosquitoes and ticks are out in full force.

2. Harvest your early crops
Young potatoes and peas—direct from your garden plot—should be part of your home-cooking menu. Plant your collards, cabbage and celery by mid-month.

3. Visit a garden in full bloom
All around the city, gardens and parks should be bursting with greenery and flowers. Get in the know with this issue's list of secret garden locations.

4. Explore your roots
The sixth annual Philadelphia Latino Film Festival is June 2 to 4, featuring works from emerging and established Latin-American and Latino filmmakers; June 4 is also this year’s Irish American Festival at Penn’s Landing. Now in its 42nd year, the Odunde Festival comes back to South Street June 11 to celebrate African culture. And the Roots Picnic? It’s June 3.

5. Celebrate summer in a pop-up garden
The Philadelphia Horticultural Society will host a new pop-up garden this year, which opened last month at 36th and Filbert streets, and the popular South Street location is still open.

6. Plan the block party
Did you know that the city’s permitting process for a block party includes an extra fee if it doesn’t receive your application three weeks in advance of the date? Now’s the time to talk with your neighbors about getting together and celebrating the summer. You can fill out an online application (and pay that lower fee) by visiting philadelphiastreets.com.

7. Eat a simple spring meal outside
A cheese plate with fresh snap peas and strawberries is all you need for a delicious spring picnic, and radishes provide the perfect vehicle for snacks on the stoop or patio for an at-home happy hour. Or maybe try a homemade strawberry pie? For instructions on crafting perfect plates at home, check out this issue's food section.

8. Give your houseplants a little love
Indoor plants could use a good shower drenching; then sit them outside for a week or two, or make a schedule to rotate plants outside for some sun.

9. Watch an outdoor film
June is that perfect month when summer evenings are still a little cool. The Schuylkill Banks, Dell Music Center and Clark Park all host outdoor movie nights.

10. Keep that garden watered
All gardening is a magical combination of sun, soil and water. Your beautiful starts will make it through the hot summer more easily if you help establish their root systems now. Cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes are particularly thirsty plants to keep an eye on.

June: Comings & Goings

Interfaith Walk for Green Energy Culminates After 100 miles
An interfaith, intergenerational group of activists concluded their 100-mile trek through PECO’s service area, a demonstration dubbed the Walk for Green Jobs and Justice. 

About 40 walkers began the journey May 8 at Morris Chapel Baptist Church in North Philly, and upon their return to the city on May 22, they were joined by national environmental justice leaders Bill McKibben and Bishop Dwayne Royster for the final mile.

For over a year, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER) and the Earth Quaker Action Team—who co-organized and promoted the walk—have calling on PECO, the state’s largest utility, to focus on solar installations.

“Every single day, folks tell me about struggling to support their families. They need jobs, not programs. It’s time to build a green city that works for all,” said the Rev. Holston, executive director of POWER. “It won’t be easy, but PECO can change.”

New Data Reveals Increases in Methane Pollution
New data from the Energy Information Agency reveals that methane emissions from the natural gas industry are on the rise, and emissions are increasing faster than production. 

Natural gas production from wells in Pennsylvania increased by more than 12 percent between 2014 and 2015, EIA reported. But the most recent inventory data show that between 2014 and 2015, methane emissions rose more than 20 percent. 

“Any time emissions are rising faster than production, it’s clear that voluntary efforts to cut emissions are not working,” said Rob Altenburg, director of PennFuture’s Energy Center.  

These inventories are the industry’s self-reported data, and the Environmental Protection Agency notes that actual emissions could be considerably higher than what is being reported.

Villanova Student One of Five U.S. Delegates Selected for Agriculture Summit
Villanova University student Julie Greenwald is among a group of five youngagriculture leaders to represent the United States at the Youth Ag-Summit in Brussels, Belgium. The five U.S. representatives are part of a delegation of 100 from 49 countries to participate in a think tank Oct. 9 to 13 focused on identifying sustainable solutions to address global food security.

Solarize Philly Pushes for Solar Roofs and Green Jobs
City Council and the Philadelphia Energy Authority announced in April the launch of Solarize Philly (#SolarizePHL), a residential solar energy program that hopes to expand the adoption of new technologies.

Solarize Philly will be administered by the authority as part of the Philadelphia Energy Campaign, a citywide $1 billion, 10-year investment to upgrade buildings, homes and businesses. Training programs for solar installers will be offered in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia.

“This monumental partnership with the School District of Philadelphia is important to ensuring that our children have opportunities to expound on their educational experiences with relevant work experience,” said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown. “It behooves us to do our very best to ‘get it right’ the first time around and to hand future generations a healthy and sustainable planet.”

The first residential solar sign-up period begins July 1. Interested homeowners can have their homes assessed and receive a project proposal.

House Bill Would Prevent Municipalities from Reducing Use of Plastic Bags
The Pennsylvania House passed legislation in April that would prevent local governments from enacting a ban, fee, tax or surcharge on the use of disposable plastic bags at retail stores.

House Bill 1071 passed the House by a vote of 102-87 and now moves to the Senate.

“This is a bill driven by national plastic bag manufacturer Novolex, who owns the Helix Poly plant in Milesburg, Pa.,” said state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware/Montgomery. “Milesburg is represented by one of the House members sponsoring the bill.”

Green Construction and Renewal Projects begin
Fairmount Park Conservancy began construction April 20 on the Centennial Commons project along Parkside Avenue in West Fairmount Park, which is expected to be completed in fall. The layout includes play spaces for kids, seating and picnic areas, landscaping and a rain garden.

The project is part of the national Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative, an effort to revitalize cities by connecting parks, libraries, community centers and other public spaces.

“Centennial Commons is an outstanding example of what happens when our public agencies work together to bring innovative projects to our Parks and Recreation facilities,” said Mayor Jim Kenney when Phase 1 began.

In Northeast Philly, community members, city officials and state representatives celebrated on May 15 the start of construction for the K&T Trail, which extends 1.2 miles from the Frankford Boat Launch to Magee Avenue along the Delaware River. The K&T Trail follows the path of the former Kensington and Tacony Railroad and is one of the links in Philly’s developing multiuse trail network, known as the Circuit Trails.

On May 1, members of Kensington Community Food Co-op broke ground at the future site of their new storefront on Coral Street. KCFC has raised $1.5 million for the market, which will include a grocery, café and bar.

Leadership Changes at Conservancy Orgs
Owen Franklin, AICP, will serve as the new leader of Pennsylvania’s Trust for Public Land. Franklin most recently served as Promise Zone Initiative director at the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment & Opportunity.

Robert C. F. Willson has been elected president of the board of French & Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust. As FPCCT celebrates its 50th anniversary, longtime board of directors’ president Cary Leptuck of Elverson, Pennsylvania, has retired as officer of the board after 11 years of service.

An urban arboreal history, from the prehistoric ginkgo to the resurgent American elm

Illustration by Corey Schumann

Illustration by Corey Schumann

Trees of Life

interview by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

When historian Jill Jonnes sat down to write her book “Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape,” it was with the intention of looking at our past relationship with trees in order to see into the future of combating climate change. Trees have always done hard work in cities, providing sanitation, shade, fresh air, stormwater mitigation, carbon storage, food, peace of mind and beauty—when our politicians have invested in them. ¶ The book is filled with American tree-lore backstories: The Arbor Day Foundation has to keep a low-profile on its pro-slavery founder; the first shipment of Washington, D.C.-bound cherry treesfrom Japan was burned due to infighting and a bug infestation; fan-leafed ginkgos first got here due to an arboreally covetous Philadelphian whose estate is now the Woodlands Cemetery.

Why do we love trees so much?
JJ: Well, we lived in trees—before we were humans. Once we began evolving into humans, we clearly still spent some time in trees, and I also think trees provide us many different kinds of services. If you think about living in a pre-industrial world: Trees provide shade; certain kinds of trees provide food; they provide wood, which means you can have fire. But probably the most important thing about trees is their aesthetic natural qualities. They’re very alive, and they live a long time in the same way that people do—but somehow differently. So I feel as if we project ourselves onto trees.

The language we use to describe trees is very telling: They have limbs, crowns, lifespans, mortality rates, tree doctors, tree surgeons. Why do you think we anthropomorphize them so much?
JJ: Because they’re the largest living creatures that are ubiquitous in our lives, which is part of the reason we also take them so totally for granted. [But] it seems as if—for reasons I honestly don’t quite understand—everyone’s suddenly opened their eyes, and they’re looking at trees. Maybe it’s because people are spending so much time in front of screens—and they’ve done that increasingly, year by year, for the last 10 to 15 years—and they realized they have to stop looking at screens. And when they do and they look around, they started noticing trees.

I know the science on this is new, but what role do trees play in cognitive function and mental health for humans?
JJ: There’s this wonderful body of science that’s accumulating. It’s pretty straightforward, actually. These days, I guess, you can strap people up with all of these little devices and send people out, and what they show is that [with exposure to trees] your cortisol levels come down. And that’s a marker for stress… The less stress there is, the better your well-being. That is something that was really interesting to me, as a historian and someone who’s really come to be absorbed with trees, all things arboreal.

It was really surprising to see that from the beginning of the country, politics played such a starring role in the health of urban forests. Did the extent of the politicking surprise you?
JJ: No. Everything is political. Though the plant part of it was really interesting. I really didn’t appreciate the extent to which the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] was just so active. But of course, if you think about it, we were a nation of farmers, and there was this great desire to settle the land and help people prosper, and since the bulk of people were farmers, how were they going to prosper? They were going to prosper if they were offered better crops and help with pests.

You detail a scenario in Chicago under Mayor Daley, who commissioned a tree study, ignored it, and then leapt into action when there was a beetle infestation. It mirrors our approach to climate change in general, which is that we aren’t as likely to invest as we are to react when something goes wrong.
JJ: I would like to think that the millennials—who I’m really sorry to say are inheriting this huge mess… we have so wrecked the planet, it’s just astonishing—will take the situation in hand and demand something better. ... But the other thing to remember about climate change is that there has been an intentional and extremely successful campaign on the part of the fossil-fuel industry to intervene and prevent any kind of meaningful action. [Action] is all about politicians hearing from voters.

You end the book with a quote from the president of the Rainforest Alliance, who said, “Every time I hear about a government program that is going to spend billions of dollars on some carbon capture and storage program, I just laugh and think, ‘What is wrong with a tree?’” They are an elegant solution that nature has already provided. Are we underutilizing trees to combat climate change?
JJ: Totally… I wrote the book because I feel we need maximum urban forests as a way to address climate change. I also felt like urban forestry is a tiny world, super underfunded. Once I realized what that world was, I thought, “This book is a way for them to make themselves known and connect with the wider world and advance this idea that every city should have a maximum—and strategically thought-out—urban forest.”

Jill Jonnes is a historian, tree advocate and author of the book "Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape."

Fossil fuels are still the low-hanging fruit of energy sources

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

The Energy Bottom Line

by Jerry Silberman

Editor’s note: This is Part Three of a series that concludes in July.

Question: Which kind of energy is the most efficient?
The Right Question: How much energy does it take to get energy?

The most important aspect of energy that most people have never heard of is “energy return on energy invested,” or EROI. In business, profits are the money left over after all expenses of business are paid. Widening the profit margin is what businesses strive for. The business that can bank $10 in profits out of every $100 sale will do much better than a competitor that can only manage to gain $1 on each $100 sale. 

The potential energy of a fuel, or of a sunbeam, is not what’s most important about that energy source. What’s most important is what proportion of that energy will be needed to make the rest of it available for useful work. That’s the energy profit margin. 

If it takes 5 percent of the energy contained in a barrel of oil to make the rest of that barrel available as diesel fuel for a truck, then the EROI, expressed as a ratio, is 19-to-1. The higher the EROI, the more energy is available to do society’s work. The more complex our society, the more energy we need to maintain it. The extremely high EROI of fossil fuels compared with any prior sources of energy has allowed us to develop the most complex society in history. 

Another critical concept in understanding the system by which we energize our society is “low-hanging fruit.” We always will pick the apple easiest to reach from the ground before pulling out the ladders. It takes less time and energy to do so, and like water, we’ll take the path of least resistance. The apple at the top of the tree may contain a few more calories of food energy than the one at the bottom, but by the time we fetch the ladder and climb up, we will get a far smaller return of energy from it. (We need to save up something to be able to play baseball.) 

Let’s apply these principles to our primary nonrenewable energy source: oil. 

Fifty years ago, most oil was extracted from shallow wells and was under pressure that minimized the need to pump. An amazing EROI of up to 40-to-1 characterized the Texas oil industry. (The energy in one barrel of oil was enough to produce 40 barrels, 39 of which could be used to power society.) That oil is gone, and today we need to frack, and drill in the ocean, and EROI is between 12-to-1 and 15-to-1 now—and dropping steadily. That’s depletion at work.

Those numbers, however, are still significantly better than most renewables. How would these principles play out with photovoltaic electricity, usually referred to as solar energy? The amount of sunlight arriving daily on the planet is not going to change within any time frame relevant to humanity. The solar energy industry in recent years has greatly increased its efficiency, converting a much higher percentage of incoming solar energy to useful electricity. Can’t we count on this technological improvement to continue? 

Actually, no. 

There are different limiting factors that impact EROI. First—and this is important—the energy required to improve the technologies for the extraction of useful electricity from sunlight comes mostly from fossil fuel energy. What we consider a clean technology is subsidized by the fossil-fuel-driven economy we live in. 

Mining, transporting, and processing chemicals and metals from around the world to build photovoltaic installations all depend on the subsidy of the fossil fuel economy, and on industrial processes that cannot run efficiently on energy in the form of electricity. As the cost of producing fossil fuels increases, because of depletion, those increases affect the EROI of photovoltaic electricity. 

Second, the technology to convert many functions of society that are not already accomplished with electricity, such as transportation, is not practical. (Low-hanging fruit—if electric cars were easier to make or more efficient, they would have been on the road en masse long ago.)

Third, the intermittent nature of solar energy (and wind) presents huge problems. Our current electric grid relies on generating a constant “baseload” and then increasing generation as needed. Electricity demand changes hourly, daily and seasonally. Nuclear plants and coal-fired plants, being the most costly to start up or shut down, usually run continuously with fixed output. Gas generators can be fired up or shut down much more efficiently, and so operators turn them on or off as needed.

But because solar and wind generation are unpredictable, they cannot be relied upon for baseload electricity. In order todo so, we would need to make immense investments in generating capacity that far outstrip our actual needs. We also need to invest in technology to store large amountsof energy—batteries, pumped storage and other methods—which is unnecessary in our current fossil-fuel-based system. 

The takeaway here is that energizing our society relies on a very complex system with many variables and limiting factors. To think about the changes needed to make that system sustainable requires a system view, rather than hoping for a simple, single adjustment to make it work. With this framework, we will return in the final column of this series to revisit whether renewables can really power our society.

Jerry Silberman is a retired union organizer who now devotes his time to negotiating a resilient future for all of us.  

Four Secret Gardens with Open Gates

Photo by Jared Gruenwald

Photo by Jared Gruenwald

by Brittany Barbato

Today, the Philadelphia region has more than 30 public gardens within 30 miles of Philadelphia, cultivating roots that ground much of America’s horticultural history. These four lesser-known gardens contain a treasure trove of beautiful, interesting and historically relevant plants waiting for you to discover and explore.

The Gardens at Mill Fleurs

If you’re not careful, you just might miss the entrance to The Gardens at Mill Fleurs, marked only by cattle fencing and a small wooden sign off to the side of Cafferty Street in Point Pleasant, Pennsylvania. The garden is located amid sloped, rocky land, so turning onto the property feels like reaching the top of a roller coaster. After a winding journey upward, you can’t see much but you know you’re in for something spectacular. 

Coast down the steep gravel driveway and the ride begins with thousands of rare plants arching overhead and bursting in bloom along pathways branching out from the main drive. Farther down the left side, the Tohickon Creek bubbles. At the end, a grist mill and a saw mill sit side-by-side. Originally built in the mid-1700s, the structures are now home to garden and furniture designers Barbara Tiffany, 76, and her husband, Harry Robert Tiffany III (“Tiff”), 78.

Barbara is a vivacious woman with permed brown hair, a small swoop of bangs curled perfectly over her right brow. She offers homemade oatmeal cranberry cookies and iced tea to guests, insisting that “being a good host is part of the experience.” Her graciousness is complemented by a certain inner strength that’s visible in her vigilant routine of ripping up stray weeds that threaten her “babies” or “pretty girls.”

Tiff is more soft-spoken than Barbara, but they both share an adventurous outlook on gardening and life that led them to purchase the property together nearly 25 years ago. The restoration and redesign process required a lot of tender loving care, something the couple feels has dual importance. 

“The secret to success in gardening and relationships is to be open and willing to take risks, while also working hard and going the extra mile,” shares Barbara. After removing acres of rampant bamboo and cultivating the soil to a less-rocky state, they finally began to plant. “I just started buying cute, funky, different, interesting plants,” says Barbara. “And suddenly I had this collection that was very unusual.” 

Today, the grounds feature more than 2,000 perennials, approximately 1,500 different varieties of woody plants and 1,000 hosta cultivars—among many other specimens. The garden is organized first and foremost by color, because Barbara believes it is the basic principle of design. “The driveway is pink,” says Barbara matter-of-factly as she points out the pink-tipped blossoms of a dogwood tree that resides among many other garden compatriots in similar shades. There are also green, bronze, purple and yellow beds; Patriot Hill is checkered in red, white and blue flora. 

Other areas are named for common features: Garden Erotica is a bed full of plants with names like Summer Lovin’, Faithful Heart and Striptease; the “mini” garden has minuscule versions of plants found elsewhere on the grounds. The most prized area is the Jewel Box, a narrow, grassy path that harbors the greatest concentration of the Tiffanys’ favorite gems. There are approximately 10 varieties of jack-in-the-pulpit and at least 12 variations of Solomon’s seal, which features little white lantern-shaped flowers hanging under larger, variegated lily-esque leaves.

Toward the far side of the grounds is the outdoor “laboratory” of the head gardener, Joseph F. Novak. While Barbara dictates the design of the garden, Novak, a plantsman, artist and tinkering inventor, focuses on maintaining and improving the grounds’ health. His most notable tool is a biochar contraption, which looks like a metal barrel tucked into a pit of dirt and leaves. The slow burning of biomass (such as wood, leaves or infected plant waste) inside the barrel creates a charred substance that, when added to soil, stimulates important microorganisms that have been shown to enhance soil.

Whether it’s new types of sustainability practice, plant species or design ideas, Barbara says the goal of The Gardens at Mill Fleurs is to keep “gobbling up” and trying out “new anything” because the creativity and openness is what “keeps us feeling alive.” She hopes new garden visitors will be inspired to do the same: “I want to infect them and make them rebel against all the garden magazines that say this is what goes with this,” says Barbara. “You make up your own mind about what you like, and go do that!”

Hours: By appointment; or at 10:30 a.m. June 10 and 24 and July 8
Cost: $22 per person

The Secret Garden at Awbury Arboretum

Deep within the northeast corner of Awbury Arboretum, a simple black gate with a single gold lock is hugged by two arms of an expansive Wissahickon schist wall. Looking closely at the patterns in the wall is like looking at an illustration of Earth from outer space—oval-shaped slabs of bluish-gray swirl together with lumps of sand-colored sediment. Peek between the gate’s thin wrought-iron bars and you’ll see a wood-chipped path surrounded by flowering understory trees and shrubs such as winterberry holly, spicebush and dogwood. Look up, and you’re greeted by a variety of towering trees, including established persimmons with their alligator-skin bark. 

The burgeoning area behind the gate and its walls was once a private garden for Margaret M. Cope, granddaughter of Henry Cope, who purchased Awbury in 1852. Today, this area is known as the Secret Garden and it will soon be an entirely natural playground for kids. Led by Bryan Hanes, a landscape architect and Awbury board member, the garden will remain connected to its historical context but feature new kid-friendly, natural elements such as climbing logs, dirt mounds and tree “cookies” (circular half-stumps of trees that kids can step, hop or sit on). As Hanes describes it, the space will offer “a high-quality, low-tech experience” for children to engage with each other and the environment through horticulture and geology, in addition to open play. The project is expected to be complete in time for its public grand celebration on Sept. 24.

“Nature can be a great teacher,” says Heather Zimmerman, Awbury’s director of programs and an education professional for more than 25 years. “It is calming, invites discovery, lends itself to physical exercise and engages us in appreciating our home, the Earth.” This spirit aligns with the Cope family, who spent much of their time cultivating and enjoying their land. In an unpublished memoir by Margaret Cope, she shares an outdoor childhood memory of her own: “Oh the joys of picking the violets out there, and the pink and white hawthorn, and the lilacs, and all sorts of blooming shrubbery. We used to sit and play, snapping off the violets’ heads by interlocking them.”

Hours: By appointment (open hours in progress)
Cost: Free

James G. Kaskey Memorial Park

Wearing thick-rimmed, brown rectangular glasses and a trimmed beard, Joshua Darfler, greenhouse and garden manager at James G. Kaskey Memorial Park, is a self-declared “plant nerd” who says the park’s location is part of what makes the grounds so secretive. Who would think to look for a botanical garden amid the towering buildings on the University of Pennsylvania campus? Complete with a pollinator garden, fernery, woodlands and a weeping waterfall that flows into the garden’s beloved BioPond, the space offers a living classroom to the university’s science community.

“You can start anywhere! Wander anywhere here,” says Darfler, “and you’ll always find something new.” His enthusiasm for botany overflows as he rattles off various research projects in progress: An ecology post-doc student is looking at potential uses of phytoremediation on contaminated soils; a physics class is growing passion flowers and spathiphyllum so they can collect flower buds to look at pollen microstructure development; a recently acquired live oak from northern Virginia, which shouldn’t survive in Philadelphia’s plant-hardiness zone, is offering the biology and botany departments a glimpse into climate change science. “Our founders were pushing the zones, so it’s exciting to carry that work on in a way,” says Darfler. “But we’re also viewing it through a different lens now. We’re thinking, ‘Maybe this will be the flora here in 20 to 30 years and maybe this live oak will be the new street tree.’”

Beyond its education purposes, the park serves as a passageway and reprieve for anyone who discovers it. Nurses in scrubs power walk through to their next shift; businesspeople in sharp suits and shiny shoes hustle to meetings; and, as expected, gaggles of college students stream in during afternoon breaks between classes. Nearby preschools often walk students over for lunch, too. Sometimes, the tiny tots stop mid-play to offer unsolicited help to Darfler and his team as they weed. 

“Every part of our garden has something magical,” adds Paula Kwasniewska, the park’s seasonal gardener. “This is a special place, and whoever travels through it, at any age, feels it.”

Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Cost: Free

The Wyck Rose Garden

This garden is a darling plot of land adjacent to the historic Wyck House in the heart of Germantown. Walk down the avenue between Walnut and High streets on any given sunny day between early summer and fall, and you’ll likely smell the garden before you actually see it. The sweet, billowing fragrance of more than 50 cultivars of fresh roses waft over the fence and into the neighborhood.

Widely recognized as America’s oldest rose garden in original plan, it maintains both the original layout and original rose specimens first planted in the 1820s. Several parterres, or quilted compartments, follow a symmetrical pattern. Traditionally, each section would also be framed by perfectly pruned boxwood hedges with their classic green oval leaves. Boxwood blight forced Wyck to remove most of the hedges for the time being, though, giving the garden a slightly overgrown feel. When in bloom, the garden is a vision of pillowy petals popping out of greenery and climbing up walls of lattice.

Perhaps the most enchanting part of the garden, though, are the stories and mysteries about the roses. Several roses in cultivation today were thought lost until they were discovered growing at Wyck, and all specimens of those varieties in commercial trade descend from Wyck plants. Rumor has it the hybrid multiflora rose, Rosa “Lauré Davoust,” was nowhere to be found until a wooden trellis was restored in its original location, allegedly waking the rose up from it long slumber and enticing it to stretch its limbs toward the sun.

Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
Cost: Free

5 tips for greener living for you and your pet

Illustration by Mike Wohlberg

Illustration by Mike Wohlberg

Pet Sense

by Lauren Johnson

When it comes to protecting the environment, it’s good to get the whole family involved —including our four-legged friends. Doing your research and being a savvy consumer can also create a healthier environment for both you and your pet. Here are a few ways to get you started.

The Nose Knows
If something emits a chemical smell, chances are it contains them. “Many of the pet toys you’ll find in the grocery store will have an odor when you unwrap them, and that’s a telltale sign they should be avoided,” says Victoria Schade, professional dog trainer and author of “Dog Trainer Secrets: Positive Problem Solving for a Well-Behaved Dog.” Schade urges consumers to be choosey when it comes to treating their pet and to look for toys made from natural materials such as hemp and natural rubber that are BPA- and phthalate-free. “There is no governing body that’s looking into the safety of dog toys, so it’s important to shop as if you were buying for yourself.” Additionally, Schade recommends purchasing products made in the USA to offset the carbon footprint of the fuel used in shipping. “There’s a trick some manufacturers use where they put an American flag on the packaging to make you think it’s made in the USA. But if you look closely, you’ll see that it actually says it’s been ‘designed’ in the USA—which is a huge difference.”

Litter That Litters
Clay litter is commonly found among the shelves of the pet aisle, but before you let Fluffy set her paws on it, consider that clay is a mined product. Not only does it take heavy equipment to manufacture, it yields a hefty carbon weight when it comes to shipping. Gwendolyn Carry, owner of Chez Bow Wow pet grooming salon in Northern Liberties, recommends using litter made from natural, biodegradable materials, like Blue Buffalo Co.’s Naturally Fresh brand cat litter, which is made from walnut shells. 

As for picking up after your pup, it’s all in the bag. “It’s easy to reuse plastic grocery bags from the store, but you have to remember they’re a petroleum product that’s not going to biodegrade,” Carry says, recommending pet owners use corn-based biodegradable bags instead. “It’s an important practice in general to pick up after your dog, since dog waste gets into waterways, affecting the environment and can spread disease.”

Watch How You Wash
When washing your pet, avoid using shampoos that contain artificial ingredients and chemical detergents such as sodium laurate, and parabens (preservatives), none of which are good for your pet or the environment. Since pet shampoos are also not regulated by the FDA, packaging can oftentimes mislead. Read the label carefully. If it says “contains,” it usually means the manufacturer left out the questionable ingredients and is just telling you the appealing ones such as coconut oil, aloe, etc. 

“Allergies are on the rise in pets. Dogs and cats are showing a higher rate of reaction because of the impact of living in a chemical-based environment,” says Carry, who says to watch for signs like itching and skin irritation after bathing your dog, which could indicate an allergy. Most dogs only need occasional baths to begin with. If they haven’t just rolled in a pile of garbage, a few times a year will do.

A Slippery Slope on Ice Melt Safety
Ice melt can be toxic if it’s ingested, especially by pets who have kidney disease. Though there are several brands of ice melt that claim to be safe for your dog, further reading is often required; Consumer Reports has published a helpful comparison online of active ingredients and what to watch out for. Look for any cautions listed on the product’s label, and watch for artificial colors. Keep in mind that the product may claim to be safe for your pet, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe for the environment, including your plants. 

Use sand when possible, and try using a paw wax to help protect your pup’s toes from harsh sidewalk salts, which can be very painful on their pads (it can actually melt into their paws and burn—ouch!). Paw wax can also protect from hot pavement in the summer.

Avoid These Pet-Poisonous Plants
Always do your research and ask your vet before introducing new plants to an area that your pet has access to. This list, courtesy of Maya Pirok, VMD of Northern Liberties Veterinary Center, calls out some of the most toxic plants for pets:

  • Rhododendrons and azaleas can cause neurological, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular dysfunction.
  • Lilies (including Easter lilies, tiger lilies, Japanese showy lilies and daylilies) can cause renal failure in cats.
  • Castor beans contain ricin, one of the most potent toxins known. 
  • Digitalis contains cardiac glycoside, which is toxic to pets even in small amounts.
  • Cycad palms are ornamental indoor plants that contain cycasin, which can lead to toxicosis.

The Wissahickon Trail Classic stirs memories of the past while bringing aid to the park’s future

Photo by Steve Belkowitz

Photo by Steve Belkowitz

Lost in Philadelphia’s Wilderness

by Justin Klugh

It's 2006, and Phil Ranly is lost in the Wissahickon. Somewhere along the trail, he took a wrong turn, became distracted by the sight of sunbeams yawning through the canopy or got caught in a wave of self-reflection. “There are some trails that run parallel to each other; they wind back into some pockets of other areas,” he says of his occasional missteps. He wasn’t the first victim of the park’s winding trails. And he wouldn’t be the last. “That’s what was fun for me. You’re in Philadelphia, but you’re lost in the wilderness.”

Thankfully, Ranly was able to find his way back and become instrumental, along with organizers Nancy Khan and Alyson Harris, in organizing the Wissahickon Trail Classic, an annual 10K race held since 2005 that benefits the park. It’s given its 400 to 500 runners a formal event through which they can explore the arboreal oasis that’s hidden in plain sight. 

This year, the event takes place June 3. But early on in its existence, it became evident that despite the Wissahickon’s popularity and exposure, it still, on occasion, has the space, the twists and the appetite to devour disoriented—and experienced—athletes.

“We’ve gotten runners lost, even with all the markings we put up to make it as error-proof as possible,” Ranly says. “It goes to show you that there’s enough diversity back there to really get lost. There’s big trees, you’re down in the valley, you can’t see the cars, you can’t see buildings, you can’t hear the road.”

The squealing brakes and honking horns of Center City Philadelphia and the surrounding neighborhoods are clogged with runners on any given day, predominantly amid the onset of spring. Running shoes are dug out of closets as winter hibernators return to the streets to maneuver around pedestrians, dash through red lights and vault over dog leashes. Trail running gives participants a chance to experience the kind of reflection and concentration that a runner may not get while dodging an ice cream truck driver looking at his phone.

“You’re being absorbed in the moment of running,” Ranly says, “whereas on roads you can see a mile ahead of you, your feet are just pounding on the concrete, you’re looking at traffic signs and trying to meander those types of obstacles. But there’s definitely a therapeutic art to trail running, of being out in the fresh air, being aware of the moment. For me, being in the moment of running and observing the trail is the experience of it. It’s as much mental as it is physical.”

A winding path that’s always home
With a lengthy visitors log, Wissahickon Valley Park is a deep woodland with plenty of permanent residents as well, including herons, foxes, salamanders and water snakes. Its 1,800 acres are constantly sprouting with growth and a furious, sometimes surprising, ecosystem—in 2016, a wayward black bear captivated the Philadelphia news cycle for an afternoon as it forded the creek. 

While serving as an important component of our ecosystem and as an escape from the frenzy of city life, the Wissahickon has been home to all manner of inhabitants and personalities since the 1600s: the Lenape Native Americans who gave the valley its name, religious zealots awaiting an apocalypse that would never come and Revolutionary War spies using its rough terrain for cover from British muskets. The Wissahickon Creek pushes through 23 miles of the park before draining into the Schuylkill River and at one point served as Philadelphia’s chief water source.

“It’s great that the city planners at the time were trying to protect the watershed,” Ranly says. “That’s why the whole Kelly Drive area was protected along the Wissahickon Creek, because that was the water source for the city of Philadelphia.”

The Wissahickon’s modern purpose has become to provide Philadelphians and surrounding suburbanites a retreat for walking, hiking, running, biking and horseback riding, creating a hub for interaction in what used to be a sprawling and more silent wood. The Wissahickon Wanderers are Philadelphia’s premier trail running group, offering weekly runs on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings as well as yearly events that don’t have fees or dues. As a former member, Ranly’s exposure to the Wissahickon became a collective experience he shared with friends and neighbors. 

But the trails of the Wissahickon don’t stretch all the way to Indiana, where Ranly, now 37, has lived since 2013. 

“My speed is now a fraction of what I used to be able to run,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of my running now is with a jogging stroller. The therapeutic events of going out on a trail are kind of lost on me because I’ve got two babies to keep in mind.” Ranly pauses for a wistful chuckle. “Now that you have me talking about it, I miss the park immensely.”

It’s 2017. And Phil Ranly would love to be lost in the Wissahickon again.

Keepers of the trail
Ron Ayres can be a tough man to reach. “Sorry,” he says, “I put my phone down and went outside.”

The Roxborough native grew up a wandering, darting adolescent. The woods of the Wissahickon were his battleground for imagined enemy soldiers and his hiding place for in-game pursuers. As he leapt over logs and crouched behind rocks of the arborous acreage, he instinctively drew a map in his head, creating a finely tuned, picturesque route through the wood, comprising favorite spots and inspired by treasured memories. Now, at 70 years old, when a breeze carries the scent of ginger and foamflower through his window and draws him back into the well-traveled thickets of his youth, he knows exactly which route he’ll take.

“The yellow trail on the Roxborough end, it wanders along right up above the Wissahickon,” Ayres explains. “But then I like to cross [over]… and take the orange trail—that’s the one with the fewest bikes. There’s a hundred steps there, there’s the Fingerspan Bridge. It goes by Devil’s Pool and up to Valley Green. That’s always been a favorite of me and my children when we go for walks. You’re up there by yourself, there’s a steepness to it. The seclusion is really good over there.”

As a board member and treasurer of the Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers since 2000, Ayres, a retired systems analyst who gained a background in horticulture in the ’80s, will still spend two full days a week at work in the park. His biggest foes are no longer imaginary, and they now take the form of invasive plant species and overpopulated deer; he leads crews to clear debris and plant shrubs and trees. The Wissahickon Trail Classic is a boon for Ayres and the WRV, as the funds raised by the Wanderers for the race go straight to the sustainment of the park, which in turn is a natural choice for a trail-running expedition. 

“The park is big and has so many kinds of environments,” Ayres says. A Wissahickon lifer, even he claims there’s a stretch along Lincoln Drive he still hasn’t seen. “It has hard climbs, it has some flat areas, but it’s a very challenging race because there’s a lot of ups and downs. There are tributaries coming into the creek, so whenever there’s a tributary when you’re going along the steep side, you have to go down and back up. [Runners] just think this is the best trail run in this part of the country.”

Advised on race matters by the Wanderers, Ayres and the WRV are enthusiastic helpers of the cause, as the two organizations work symbiotically to maintain the woods in an imitation of the ecosystem surrounding them—Ayres’ WRV colleague, Steve Jones, will lead a 5K nature hike while the Wanderers are running the Wissahickon Trail Classic. 

“It’s just worked out really well,” Ayres says—though he’s not a distance runner himself, something he explains with a gruff laugh. “I’m a basketball player.”

There’s an irony in the Wissahickon’s ability to bring people together through its offers of isolation. But seclusion is a powerful influence, motivating runners, hikers or dwellers of the woods to reveal their true selves, at whatever speed they choose.

“When I get a chance,” Ayres admits quietly, “and nobody’s with me, and I see a trail… I’ll run for as long as I can.”

Call of the wild
It drains, it tires, it saps runners of energy, all the while displaying miles of green life around them. But the park’s challenges have not scared off Wissahickon Trail Classic runners for over a decade. Even to those like Ranly, who’ve left it behind, it calls—a reminder of its existence is all a former runner needs to beckon them once more into its depths, to marvel at the luster of nature and summon the strength for one more bend in the trail; one more steep climb; one more stumble and handful of wet earth.

After speaking for this story, Phil Ranly sent an email. The woods had overtaken his thoughts, he said, and the Wissahickon’s growth had wrapped his every thought in its azaleas and been echoing with the rapid strikes of pileated woodpeckers.

Seriously,” he wrote, “you have me thinking of making the drive to attend this year!

Progress on protected bike lanes, but work remains amid tight budgets and critical neighbors

Stop and Go for Vision Zero

by Justin Klugh

In the hustle and buzz of an urban commute, we take our lives in our own hands. A driver’s grip on the steering wheel of a two-ton projectile at rush hour is capable of slipping, of getting distracted, of grabbing a phone. Cyclists, too, each day veer around cars, blow past stop signs and ignore traffic laws. Pedestrians give in to their jaywalking urges or are forced into hazardous detours by uprooted sidewalks or construction bleeding into their walkways. At its worst, it’s an orchestra of chaos, held together by painted lines and invisible boundaries.

Needless to say, mistakes are made, and the results can be tragic. In Philadelphia, 100 people a year are killed in traffic accidents. Similarly grim statistics in 1994 inspired a road traffic safety bill in Sweden with a lofty goal: the elimination of traffic deaths. Three years later, it was passed into law and became known as the Vision Zero Project. It was an idea that appealed to governments around the world, and it arrived in Philadelphia in November 2016, when Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order that formed our city’s Vision Zero Task Force, aiming for zero deaths from traffic accidents in Philadelphia by 2030.

“Vision Zero was a whirlwind first four months,” says Philadelphia Director of Complete Streets Kelley Yemen, who took over the job last October. The day Mayor Kenney set up the task force was her first day on the job. “We had a four month timeline to release the draft action plan. We made it through that, but now we’ve got it out and we’re looking for comments, we’re doing a lot of community outreach, we’re taking some time right now to build our data inventory and create our high injury network that will all be finalized this fall with the final action plan.”

Yemen and her department’s plan is available at visionzerophl.com, where residents can leave comments or suggestions, and even mark on a map particular areas in which they’ve witnessed any form of street malpractice: speeding, red light running, wayward pedestrian, bad cycling behavior. The Bicycle Coalition’s annual Vision Zero conference held in March of this year provided updates on where the city stood on the project: There is progress, but much work remains.

“I really hope [Mayor Kenney’s] vision can be turned into reality sooner than later. Unfortunately, the political and financial situation in Philadelphia is such that that isn’t enough to make change happen,” says Randy LoBasso, the Bicycle Coalition’s communications manager. “From the ground floor, Philadelphia’s streets are vastly underfunded, and it’s a situation that’s pretty unique to us.”

According to a 2015 report from the Bicycle Coalition, Pittsburgh had set aside 4.2 percent of its city budget on streets, compared to Philadelphia’s 0.7 percent. Baltimore had poured $143 per capita into its roads, whereas Philadelphia was spending $16. LoBasso says the Bicycle Coalition is waiting to see if a plan submitted to City Council by Mayor Kenney will fix this disparity.

An aspect of Vision Zero designed to shield cyclists from accidents is protected bike lanes: roadways for bikers separated from vehicular traffic by barriers, plant beds, parked cars or curbs. Mayor Kenney planned to install 30 miles of PBLs in five years starting in June 2016. The city’s first stretch was opened the following September on Ryan Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, from Mayfair to Lexington Park alongside nearby Pennypack Park. PBLs were a topic of discussion at the Bicycle Coalition’s conference in March, as well, with the organization citing the (unofficial total of) 76 cyclist deaths in 2016 as motivation to propel the project forward.

“You would think safer streets for bicyclists—and all road users—would be universally appreciated,” says LoBasso. However, there are plenty of ways to stir discontent, LoBasso explains. “Before a meeting about protecting the Spruce and Pine bike lanes in Center City, someone put up posters claiming a protected bike lane would block emergency vehicles and potentially result in the deaths of countless people on their way to Pennsylvania Hospital. Obviously that’s not true, but it gets people riled up.”

For Yemen, the day-to-day job requires education and relationship building.  “Even for people who may have seen them in other cities, the question becomes, ‘How is that going to fit into the context of our streets in such an old street network and a historic grid?’”

Yemen says her department is trying to get a PBL installed on Chestnut Street between 34th and 45th by the middle of this summer and that American Street will eventually have a race cycle track. “We’re on our way,” she says. “We have over $600,000 in combined state and federal grant funding for PBLs. That won’t get us all the way to thirty [miles], but it will get us a good way there.” 

“Philadelphia is the most-biked big city in the United States, which is great,” LoBasso says. “But a good 60 percent of citizens here fall into the ‘interested but concerned’ category for cyclists, and I want a city where those people feel safe getting on their bikes with their families and going to work, school or wherever they want.”

Progress, like rush hour traffic, is stop and go. LoBasso says despite the pace, Vision Zero and protected bike lanes are moving forward. “I just wish the process would speed up,” he says.

Forging a trail for female cyclists in Philadelphia

Photo by Mark Likosky

Photo by Mark Likosky

A Bike of One’s Own

by Justin Klugh

One journey started on a pair of bike tires, cruising over the flatlands of Lincoln, Nebraska.

“On a dare, I got into bike racing in the fall of 2009,” says Nebraska native Elisabeth Reinkordt. It was cyclist Sidney Brown, a National Time Trial champion of her age bracket at the time, who issued the challenge. She dared Reinkordt, who was attending a bike race as a spectator, to come back the next day as a competitor. By doing so, she set Reinkordt off on a course that she continues today.

Around the same time, a second journey began in the bike haven of Stanford University.

“I was not a serious athlete in college,” Michelle Lee says. “I played Ultimate Frisbee. But at Stanford, 97 percent of the students use bikes to get around.” Becoming a commuter cyclist evolved into planning a bike trip from Seattle to San Francisco, furthering Lee’s passion until she found herself competing in 26 races in a single summer. 

Both journeys culminated at the starting line of Philadelphia’s Navy Yard Criterium on April 15, a women’s bike race attended by Reinkordt, Lee and the two women’s cycling teams they’ve assembled: Reinkordt’s Team Laser Cats and Lee’s Team Mathletes. Under the umbrella of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Reinkordt and Lee, both 34, have partnered to spearhead Women Bike PHL Development (DEVO), the racing arm of Women Bike PHL, an innovative cycling development group. Their long-term goal: Help bolster Philadelphia’s cycling culture for women in yet another male-dominated sport.

Like any program, culture or society, cycling in Philadelphia has barriers that make things more difficult for women simply because they’re women. Reinkordt describes the atmospheres in some corners of the sport as “less than welcoming.”

“Depending on where you are, there can be a culture in cycling that’s sort of ‘tough enough,’ ‘hard enough,’ you know,” she says. “You go out on a hard ride and people just sort of launch attacks and people get dropped from the ride, and maybe you find yourself out in the countryside and you have no idea where you are. That can be a pretty brutal introduction to the sport.”

But the more inclusive the road that Reinkordt and Lee are forging, the more it’s well-traveled. 

Former high school and college athletes have joined them, yearning for the challenge of (another) uphill battle, as have commuters wanting to channel the rush of a Monday morning bike lane into a more competitive atmosphere. And some women come to them who just want to prove something to themselves, or want an affordable method of transportation that prevents them from having to walk in areas where they feel unsafe.

“For a lot of women in the city, having safe infrastructure to get around particularly, that’s a barrier. ‘Am I even safe to get from my house to my job? Or my house to my child’s school?’” Reinkordt explains.

Even as large as it gets, Reinkordt and Lee describe a community that has become a family, sharing frustrations and challenging each other to keep up. 

“It’s a gathering place for women cyclists of all different interests,” Lee says.

Women Bike PHL and its DEVO subdivision house an online community for women to communicate, and Lee has started running skills clinics for beginners, thanks to a grant received by the Bicycle Coalition. Meetups, classes and social events on riding and mechanics vary from open to the public to exclusively for women. The group has even established a Girl Scout patch called Girl Scouts on Wheels. 

“In some cases, we’re not there yet,” Reinkordt says. “But if what we’re doing results in better choices for races locally and that model gets replicated around the country, I would say we’re doing something right.”

In the end, the goal is simple: Keep women pedaling, pushing and changing gears—and make sure any up-and-coming girl who wants to can take advantage of the women’s cycling culture set by the Laser Cats and Mathletes who preceded her. Keep the journey going, from Nebraska and Stanford to the Navy Yard and beyond.

“If a little girl doesn’t see women racing,” Reinkordt posits, “how’s she going to know that bike racing is a possibility for her?” 

“We want to keep evolving the program as the community changes and maybe one day be hands-off of the community we started,” Lee says. “That’s the ultimate goal of any program: that it outlasts any one individual.”

A good cheese board can be a meal of its own

Photo by Marika Mirren

Photo by Marika Mirren

Simple Pleasures

by Alex Jones

No food tantalizes eaters quite like cheese. I’ve been sourcing and selling artisan cheeses produced on small-scale farms and dairies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for seven years, and it still makes me smile whenever a farmers market shopper slows down as they approach my table and whispers, “Oooh, cheese.” 

What many cheese lovers don’t realize is that their favorite food doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. Consuming small-batch, handcrafted cheeses made with high-quality, grass-fed milk using traditional techniques is the most nutritious way to enjoy that dairy deliciousness. And with flavorful, nutrient-dense, full-fat dairy products, you can eat a little less per serving to feel full and get the best value out of your local food dollars. 

While there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple with a delicious wedge of scrumptious local cheese and a box of your favorite crackers, I feel good about taking the time to select a few cheeses to serve together, along with seasonal accompaniments and—if I’m getting fancy—a beverage pairing to round out the plate. 

Spend a little time choosing well and your cheesy investment can go from a quick snack to a nourishing, no-cook meal that feels special, tastes delicious and only takes a few minutes to put together. 

How you choose your local cheeses will depend on your source: If you frequent a farmers market with only one cheesemaker stand, you may tend to purchase your wedges all from the same maker. In this case, it’s a good rule of thumb to select a variety of ages and textures of cheese, depending on what they offer—a fresh, spreadable cheese, a stinky washed rind and a hard Alpine-style make a nice combination. A lush, Brie-style bloomy rind (so named for the white mold that “blooms” across the surface during aging) and a pungent, crumbly blue can offset each other nicely. The friendly monger behind the table can give you suggestions. 

If you’re buying cheese from a retail counter, Talula’s Daily in Washington Square West can be counted on to stock several local varieties amid other domestic artisan cheeses and European classics in their small but mighty case. Di Bruno Bros. usually has a few local types on hand too, but availability and selection vary depending on the location. 

For the widest variety of local cheese, look no further than the Fair Food Farmstand, nestled between Pennsylvania Dutch ribs and Carmen’s cheesesteaks on the 12th Street side of Reading Terminal Market. They exclusively sell cheeses from makers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and stock local takes on everything from Brie to cheddar to Gruyere. 

Here, variety is still a good guideline—choose a soft, a medium and a hard cheese; fresh, bloomy and blue; raw and pasteurized. You can also focus on one style and try multiple types of that variety on the same plate. Compare Brie styles, Alpine styles, ash-rubbed cheeses or local takes on Gouda. This approach can also make beer, wine or cocktail pairings simpler to choose.

Not sure where to start? Check out this springtime cheese board we’ve put together to inspire you to get more local wheels and wedges into your life. 

On this board, I chose to combine some younger cheeses made with early season milk as well as some well-aged wheels from last year’s batches—all from small-scale, grass-based dairies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and available at the Fair Food Farmstand. Ask for smaller cuts if you’re feeding just one or two people, or choose pieces closer to a half-pound to feed four to six.

  1. Pittsburgh-area dairy Goat Rodeo Cheese makes a creamy, mildly tangy fresh chèvre that spreads over a hunk of crusty baguette like whipped butter—the perfect way to celebrate the start of spring as the goats give birth and milk starts to flow after a long winter. 
  2. The Farm at Doe Run in Unionville, Chester County, milks goats, sheep, and cows then combines milk from all three of their herds as part of their Creamery Collection of cheese experiments. Batch No. 11, a piquant Hispanico-inspired wheel painted in black wax during the 10-month aging process, evokes the flavors of fresh grass and cream with a spicy endnote that won the creamery a blue ribbon at last year’s American Cheese Society Cheese Competition.
  3. Not far from Doe Run, Amishman Melvin Stoltzfus milks his herd of grass-fed sheep and coordinates with other Amish and Mennonite farmers in the area to bring their products to market in the city. His sheep Camembert is one of the region’s most underrated bloomy rind cheeses—buttery, lush and savory, with an endnote of sweet corn.
  4. There are cheesemakers across the Delaware River, too—like Milford, New Jersey-based Bobolink Dairy, which makes the ultimate cave-aged cheddar in conjunction with Amish farmer cooperative Oasis at Bird-in-Hand in Ronks, Pennsylvania. Cheesemaker Jonathan White’s recipe combined with the cooperative’s heritage breed milk makes for a savory, fruity and crumbly cheddar whose sharp punch will make you fall in love. 
  5. And don’t shy away from seasonal accessories for your cheeses: Round out the board visually and nutritionally with fresh fruit (we chose strawberries to celebrate spring) something green (snap peas add a juicy, pleasant crunch, but I love microgreens and sunflower shoots, too), a dollop of honey or jam, and raw or toasted nuts. A baguette or cracker is optional—we love the crackly texture and striking look of Rip Rap Baking’s seeded sourdough flatbreads. And of course, your favorite brew or a glass of fruity white wine completes the picture. Here I poured a glass of 2SP’s light, malty Delco Lager.

The Pennsylvania Cheese Guild is Back

Photo compliments of Philadelphia Cheese Guild

Photo compliments of Philadelphia Cheese Guild

Education and advocacy are key for a growing industry with changing regulations

by Alex Jones

On a cold day between snowstorms in January 2016, cheesemakers and dairy advocates gathered in a Penn State agriculture sciences classroom. The small meeting—catered with leftover wheels from the Pennsylvania Farm Show’s cheese competition—marked the moment the defunct Pennsylvania Farmstead and Artisan Cheese Alliance was reborn as the Pennsylvania Cheese Guild. 

Flash forward 14 months to the 2017 annual membership meeting in March, and you wouldn’t know it was the same group. 

More than 40 cheesemakers, associates and enthusiasts crowded into a private room for the meeting at Harrisburg’s Millworks brewery. Over a pulled pork buffet lunch, they voted on board members and discussed recent changes in enforcement of state and federal regulations governing cheesemaking. The group listened intently as the day’s keynote speaker, Oldways Cheese Coalition Program Director Carlos Yescas, shared encouraging statistics about U.S. consumers’ raw-milk cheese consumption; at the end of the meeting, he met individually with several cheesemakers to evaluate choice wheels from their aging caves.

The guild now boasts at least two dozen cheesemakers as members, including two in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as several associate members from food industry businesses such as dairy equipment companies and specialty grocers. A handful of dedicated cheese consumers hold “enthusiast” memberships. 

Once the steering committee—that initial group of five cheesemakers meeting at Penn State—reached out to their colleagues about joining the Pennsylvania Cheese Guild, word spread and momentum grew. 

“Cheesemakers are always looking for ways to learn more about cheesemaking,” said Donna Levitsky, executive director of the guild and former operations manager at goat dairy Shellbark Hollow Farm.

The organization has rallied its members to have a greater presence at beer, wine and food festivals—such as Philly Bierfest, the PA Cider Festival, and the Philly Farm & Food Fest—to draw attention to this vital segment of the state’s dairy industry, which is the seventh largest cheese producer in the nation.

The number of permitted cheesemakers in the state is around 150; Levitsky estimates that about 85 percent of those are small or farmstead businesses. “y goal this year is to have half of Pennsylvania cheesemakers become members,” she said. 

Education is one of the core tenets of the guild’s mission to elevate and promote cheesemaking in Pennsylvania. The guild has organized creamery tours so that cheesemakers can learn from each other, and it has provided courses on making challenging styles of cheese taught by experts in the field. 

And there’s strength in numbers: The more cheesemakers and dairies join up with the Pennsylvania Cheese Guild, the easier marketing success, education gains and harmony with regulators will be for the cheesemakers.

The guild’s members have received training in anticipation of changing food safety regulations, a topic always on a cheesemaker’s mind, but doubly so as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has taken effect and safe, traditional cheesemaking techniques—such as aging wheels on wooden boards—have come under attack by some regulators. 

David Rice, a board member and owner of Clover Creek Cheese Cellar near Altoona, focuses on regulatory issues in his role in the organization. 

Companies making and selling raw milk products, including cheeses, must follow strict regulations and engage in frequent, regular testing and inspections with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and local health departments. But lately, changes to what FDA and PDA are asking cheesemakers to do—and how those rules are enforced—have left these small-business owners worried about their traditions, their craft and their livelihoods. 

For example, the FDA’s FSMA rules require cheesemakers to write a food safety plan to be compliant—something that cheesemakers are willing and able to do—but the specifics of what FSMA requires remain fuzzy. 

“We have a written plan but still haven’t been told by FDA exactly what we should have included in that plan,” Rice said. “We have also found PDA is now enforcing rules that they never mentioned, and they are changing their interpretation of which rules apply to whom.”

In these cases, the guild provides cheesemakers—who want to be compliant with regulations and manufacture and sell their products safely and legally—with a space to share frustrations, brainstorm solutions and present a unified message to state and federal regulators. 

Rice said that this year, “My goal [is] for the guild to keep the PDA and FDA aware of what is happening in the industry so they can enforce reasonable and rational regulations that promote effective food safety practices.”

In a basement in the burbs, Emiliano Tatar is making artisan cheeses

Secret Cellar

by Emily Kovach

To the unsuspecting eye, Emiliano Tatar seems like a regular guy: He lives with his wife and two children in Merion Station and is a full-time general pediatrician practicing in Roxborough. But, like an artisan superhero, in the evening he trades the stethoscope for a spatula and makes handcrafted cheese from a tiny creamery in the basement of his suburban home. 

Tatar, who came to Philly 22 years ago for college and medical school, began making cheese as a hobby four years ago. With the help of books and online resources, the hobby escalated into an obsession. 

“I really enjoyed the process of turning milk into something amazing by using old-world techniques,” he says. Plus, the scientific aspects of the process recalled his time spent studying chemistry and microbiology.

It was at the urging of family and friends who loved the results of his cheesemaking experiments that Tatar considered his new hobby as a potential source of revenue. He gained his first client when he met Pierre and Charlotte Calmels of Philly French restaurants Bibou and Le Chéri. “They tasted some cheeses and told me that if I could make it according to regulations, they would buy some,” he says.

To get legit, Tatar called the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and one of their inspectors visited his house to give him a detailed plan for how to build an in-home creamery that would meet federal and state rules and safety regulations. Tatar constructed a small, closed-off room finished with sanitary surfaces, sinks, a stainless steel work table and a shelving unit for the equipment. His aging “cave” is a large temperature- and humidity-controlled refrigerator, where the cheeses age for three months. “It’s cramped but it works... and the state approved it,” he says. He named his company Merion Park Cheese Co.

Now, about two days per month, he makes wheels of “Mercer Road,” based on the Welsh cheese Caerphilly, a hard white, crumbly cheese that he makes with milk from Bucks County. Di Bruno Bros., Fair Food Farmstand, Narberth Cheese Co., Tria Cafe and Kensington’s Martha are now among his growing list of clients. As for his second cheese, Tatar is collaborating with cheesemaker Yoav Perry on a spirit-washed cheese using gin from Pottstown-based Manatawny Still Works.

For Tatar, the best part of this new venture is the feedback he gets from people trying his homemade cheese. “It puts a smile on their face… That’s a great feeling,” he says. 

We’re about to show off our crème de la crème

Philadelphia's Tenaya Darlington, aka Madame Fromage, Photo by Jason Varney

Philadelphia's Tenaya Darlington, aka Madame Fromage, Photo by Jason Varney

The Foodies are Coming

by Grid Staff

Most Philadelphians take for granted that they can stroll down to the Italian Market or hit Reading Terminal to find some of the best artisan offerings in the world, many of which are made right here in Pennsylvania. Our cheeses are no exception, and food-tourism company Cheese Journeys is on its way to town with a gaggle of tourists to sample our region’s best rounds from Sept. 1 through 4.

Company founder and CEO Anna Juhl is an Iowa native who first honed her business chops at Juhl Haus Market & Café, a family business in Salt Lake City, Utah. She’s since traveled the world for the love of food, and other tour locations this fall include Northern Italy, England, France and Switzerland. She says that after meeting Philadelphia’s Tenaya Darlington—a food and spirits writer also known as Madame Fromage—and Di Bruno Bros. owner Emilio Mignucci, she was hooked on doing a tour in our hometown. 

“I fell in love with the people and the food culture of Philadelphia the first time I met with Tenaya and Emilio,” says Juhl. “The city’s food culture is diverse and authentic, and the beautiful farms and rolling hills of Chester County remind me of the rural countryside where I grew up in the Midwest.”

Darlington and Mignucci will help host the Philadelphia tour. It’s a steep price tag—double occupancy starts at $1,950 per person if you’re serious about your double crème Brie. For non-Philadelphians, that may give you first-time exposure to offerings from regional standouts such as Birchrun Hills Farm, Meadowset Farm and Wyebrook Farm, as well as local libations from Victory Brewing Co. and Rowhouse Spirits. But if you’re a committed local cheese lover who has dreamed about going to an after-hours event at Di Bruno’s where you can ask for a sample of any cheese in the shop, here’s your chance for a dairy-filled staycation, Philly.

Recipe: Radishes Three Ways

Spicy, crunchy and sometimes sweet, radishes always delight

by Anna Herman

Among the easiest of local crops to get to market—and the fastest crop to grow from seed—radishes are edible as a sprout, as a seedling and at maturity. They can be eaten out of hand, sliced into salads, are great pickled, sautéed roasted or grilled.

As a gardener, I tend to plant radishes mixed in with the seeds of many slow-to-germinate crops. The radish seeds come up in a few days marking the row in the garden bed, and are ready to harvest weeks before the carrots or beans they were planted alongside, giving me two-for-one in a small garden space. The surfeit of radishes with this planting plan means incorporating radishes into many meals.  With varieties as varied as French breakfast, cherry belle, watermelon and German giant, there is no shortage of radishes to explore.  

I find radishes are underappreciated and much maligned, so I’m happy to share some favorite ways to enjoy this harbinger of spring.

1. Go French. The piquancy of radishes marries well with creamy butter and a little salt, and this pairing is a classic French presentation paired with cocktails. 

Pile a bunch of clean French breakfast or other smallish mild radishes—greens attached, roots trimmed—on a plate or cutting board. Accompany with soft, creamy butter and a small pile or ramekin filled with flakey sea salt such as Maldon or fleur de sel. You then simply swipe your radish through the butter, sprinkle with a bit of salt and, voila! 

Alternatively, slice the radishes, mince a few of the radish greens and then blendthem into the butter. Spread the butter on top of a fresh sliced baguette or whole wheat toast. 

You can also layer radishes on top for even more color and crunch. Finally, sprinkle the entire creation with the sea salt of your choice or allow your guests to add salt to taste.

2. Get cheesy. Watermelon radishes—sized somewhere between a golf ball and baseball—are so named because their pale green exterior encloses a dark pink center. Once a rarity, they are now common at farmers markets, food co-ops, and among the local produce in your CSA. 

Wedges and slices do indeed resemble miniature watermelons. Crispy and a bit spicy, they pair well with a strong blue cheese. You can try well-known varieties such as Roquefort, Stilton, Bleu D’Auvergne or Gorgonzola, or choose from lesser-known cheeses such as Danish Saga.

Alternatively, serve wedges alongside your favorite blue cheese dip, or slice the radishes into rounds and crumble some mild blue in the center of each slice. 

Since we’re talking about cocktails and bites, don’t forget some playful and tasty garnish. Try pairing your radishes with thinly sliced cucumber, shaved celery or even a few toasted walnuts. 

3. Get back to roots. Less common, surprisingly, is using radishes as you might other root vegetables. They are in the same family as turnips (and broccoli, for that matter), and especially the little multicolored orbs of “easter egg” or red radishes can be roasted, grilled or sautéed whole, halved or sliced. The colors will fade slightly, and a sweetness will overlay any spiciness once radishes hit heat. This dish, a spring favorite, is savory and piquant, mild and green. Very spring! 

Blanche a bunch or two of cleaned, trimmed radishes quickly in boiling salt water. Drain the radishes, and add a few tablespoons of butter into a sauté pan on medium-high heat. Let sizzle, add the radishes and let both brown, stirring occasionally. Then add the coarsely chopped clean radish greens (but only if they were in good shape). Zest a lemon over top, season well with salt and fresh ground pepper, and squeeze half the lemon over the pan just before serving. 

Recipe: Succumb to the temptations of homemade strawberry pie

Spring Seduction

by Christina Pirello

During that brief but heavenly time known as early strawberry season, I can think of no other fruit that inspires thoughts of sensuality and romance like these lush berries. Slightly sweet, with just enough tartness to sparkle on our tongue, strawberries seduce us... and we willingly submit for a whirlwind affair. 

Strawberries are the fruit of a perennial plant that grows in temperate climates all over the world. Wild strawberries are the ancestors of today’s cultivated berries and are small and juicy, with a tendency to be more flavorful and headily fragrant than the cultivated varieties. Over time and cultivation, more than 600 varieties of strawberry have sprouted, varying greatly in size, color, texture and taste.

The strawberry plant is low-growing with many horizontal stolons (stalks) spreading out from the base, taking root to form new plants. The strawberry we eat is not actually the fruit of the plant, but is the result of a swelling at the end of the plant’s stalks, which occurs after pollination of the flowers. The actual fruit is the small yellowish seeds (achene) that dot the surface of the strawberry.

Best during late spring and early summer, choose strawberries that are firm and slightly shiny. Look for a healthy, uniform color, which indicates that they were ripe when picked. Locally grown berries will always have the best flavor, as they don’t stand up well to heat, handling and shipping. The slightest bump will bruise them, causing them to rot quickly.  

An excellent source of vitamin C, strawberries are also a rich source of potassium, folic acid, magnesium and vitamin B. Strawberry leaves can be brewed into a tea to provide relief from water retention.

They are great in pies and tarts, as the crowning glory of strawberry shortcake, dipped in dark chocolate or simply eaten fresh. Strawberry juice dribbling down your chin is a harbinger of the lazy days of summer to come. Here’s a favorite way to serve them fresh.

Sweet Strawberry Pie
At the height of their season, when strawberries are their sweetest,
this should be a regular on your table
Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds fresh strawberries, tops removed, quartered
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extracts
  • 1/2 cup brown rice syrup
  • Sea salt
  • 2 cups raw almonds
  • 1 ¾ cups pitted dates

Directions

  1. Combine strawberries, lemon juice, vanilla, rice syrup and a pinch of salt in a bowl and toss to combine. Set aside while you make the crust.
  2. Place almonds in a blender and pulse on high until they resemble bread crumbs. Transfer to a mixing bowl.
  3. Place dates in blender with about a tablespoon of water and pulse on high until well-chopped… it will be a little clumpy.
  4. Combine almonds and dates until they hold together and then press evenly onto the bottom and sides of the pie plate to form a crust.
  5. Spoon berries generously into the crust, discarding any remaining liquid. Refrigerate for 2 hours before slicing into wedges and serve.

Cook’s tip: You can purchase finely ground almond flour and save the work of step 2.

Mistral, located in the King of Prussia Mall, puts two farm-to-table veterans to the test

Sustainability in the Suburbs?

by Danielle Corcione

Mistral, pronounced MEE-strall, opened its doors at the King of Prussia Mall on March 1. Nestled between Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor, the brand-new restaurant has aspirations to farm-to-table fare, even if it’s an unlikely setting. Why King of Prussia over Philadelphia? 

The idea was proposed to co-owner Stephen Distler and his partner, Executive Chef Scott Anderson, by community leaders who wanted to bring higher quality food to the city’s higher quality malls.

“We have the highest quality and finest ingredients in everything we do,” Distler says. “When it comes to vegetables and herbs, it’s no question the best is locally sourced.” 

The pair aren’t new to the fine dining industry. Mistral’s first location in Princeton, with a slightly different menu, opened in 2013. The duo also runs Elements, a farm-to-table fine dining restaurant, which opened in Princeton in 2008.

But the restaurant has yet to warm up to sourcing all of its proteins from the raft of high-quality, grass-fed farming operations in Pennsylvania, or from more sustainable seafood sources. “Sometimes we bring [in] our Kobe beef and unique tuna... from Japan,” Distler says.

But the chefs are committed to collaborating with top-quality farms in the surrounding Montgomery County area. Griggstown Farm and Zimmerman Farm (of Lancaster County) help supply chicken. R.L. Irwin Mushroom Co. supplies every single mushroom served. Zone 7 (a distributor delivery service with farm partnerships in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) stocks the restaurant with dairy, produce and egg products. Additionally, Craig Polignano, Mistral’s chef de cuisine, is a forager; as he familiarizes himself with the new area, he will soon choose his favorite spots from which to source ingredients.

Distler also understands that a good dish is the bare minimum to a successful eatery nowadays. On top of fine culinary techniques and world-class chefs, the restaurant strives to maintain a fun, uplifting environment with modern design.

A chef and Navy veteran is still fighting the good fight

Illustration by Layla Ehsan

Illustration by Layla Ehsan

Protecting and Serving

by Brion Shreffler

Ahead of another busy Saturday night at the now shuttered Rarest, Sean Ciccarone, 37, took to the streets on March 25 for the #DisruptMAGA (Make America Great Again) protest that coincided with a Trump rally at Independence Mall.

It was just one of many marches/protests that Ciccarone—whose worldview was broadened by “seeing how so many other cultures work” while serving as a Navy gunner’s mate—has been involved in during the past year. He cites the continued visibility of police shootings and the rise of Trump as what has spurred him on.

“One reason I got into so much social activism was, in part, because I saw so many veterans taking the side of the people on the conservative platform,” says Ciccarone, who is now the chef-de-cuisine at Farmicia, and has also done turns at The Little Lion and Pennsylvania 6. For an outspoken chef who grew up in a diverse slice of Montgomery County, speaking up for what he feels is right comes naturally.

“When you’re in the kitchen, you need to possess a loud, informed and leading voice. It’s the same thing with activism,” Ciccarone says.

He helped to form the Philadelphia chapter of Veterans Against Trump once Trump became the presumptive GOP candidate. While Ciccarone says they only have a couple dozen members as “most veterans don’t share the same sentiment,” he adds that it’s important to show that veterans do not merely exist on one side of the political spectrum.

“People believe that the more veterans involved in a project, the more correct and patriotic it is,” he says. “So, I found it prudent to take the side of the people who share my ideologies.” As such, he has also been at the ready to lend his short, stocky frame—tattoos streaming down his right arm—to marches for Black Lives Matter, Philadelphia’s Black and Brown Workers Collective and other groups working for causes related to civil liberties.

Even with the Trump supporters who called him a “disgrace” for his “Veterans Against Trump” T-shirt or the people who called him a “race traitor” for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, he’d actually like to have a reasonable conversation. While the comments get under his skin, he says, “I want to hope that there is a willingness to listen on both sides.”

Ciccarone would like to tell Trump supporters the same things he would say to any chef or veteran on the other end of the ideological spectrum.

“I’d tell my fellow veterans to remember how tight-knit you were with everybody else in your unit, regardless of their background. How easy it was for you to trust your life in their hands, and ask them why that same mentality hasn't transferred with you to the civilian sector,” he says.

“To other chefs, I’d ask them to remember how hard it was coming up through the ranks. How much you needed to tooth and claw your way through kitchens just to have an opportunity at your dream. That is exactly what most of the undocumented workers, and other immigrants, are trying to do when they are working hand in fist in kitchens,” he says.

In his empathy-laden outlook, he hopes to draw an explicit connection between military service and the kitchen—two places where merit transcends any differences, and where unit cohesion and collective goals are key.

“The only way the kitchen functions right is if everybody works together. If I questioned the background of everybody with an accent while they’re trying to just work with a big old smile, we wouldn’t get anything done.”

Dispatch: From dodging spitballs and trash in the 1970s to riding in bike lanes in 2017, a city biking pioneer reflects on 40 years of urban cycling

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren

Uphill, Both Ways

essay by Ginger Osborne

It amuses me when I hear young cyclists complain that some car driver yelled at them while they were biking. 

Yelled at them. This upsets them. Being yelled at.

I started riding a bicycle around Philadelphia in the mid 1970s. There were no bike lanes, no “Share the Road” signs (nor even the concept of such things). There were other cyclists riding around—I certainly didn’t get the idea on my own to make a bicycle my primary transportation—but I could ride all over the city all day without seeing a single other cyclist. 

The best of the drivers I encountered were totally unaware that there might be two-wheeled vehicles on the street. The worst of them? They ran me off the road, threw things at me, spit on me and, sometimes, swerved their cars in such a way as to purposefully make me fall. 

This was life for a cyclist in the ’70s. 

It was how I learned to clearly see every little thing that was happening around me and how to fall on hard surfaces without breaking bones. I also learned to hate tinted windows.

As I’ve grown older—and don’t bounce back so easily—I’m delighted with all the amenities afforded to cyclists. I can ride just about anywhere in Center City and rarely need to be on a street without a bike lane. Where there are no lanes, or the bike lane is blocked by a car, drivers are quite courteous about letting me go in front of them. They wave me through four-way stops even when they have the right of way. Pedestrians actually stop to let me go through the green light when they’re crossing against the red. 

To be fair, I know that my white hair affords me a lot more courtesy than a lot of young people. But it’s still amazing. And I love it!

Now, I don’t kid myself that it’s all sunshine and lollipops. There are still a fair number of hostile drivers and pedestrians out there. And on weekends and in the summer, we have to be especially careful of people who rarely drive in the city and aren’t used to bikes. 

There are bike racks and bike parks everywhere—though never quite enough, it seems. And the powers that be are working to make life even easier for us. At the risk of being a cliche, I’ll say that if you had told my 20-something self that this would be my world in my 60s, I would have thought I had a better chance of being able to beam myself up to the moon. 

The first 20 years of riding, people yelling at me was a good day on my bike. Now, well, I guess I do get pretty annoyed when it happens. Maybe I’m entering my second childhood.

Ginger Osborne is a 40-year veteran of biking in Philadelphia, a member of Women Bike PHL and the office manager for the Association for Public Art.

Forty North Oyster Farms brings farming back to Barnegat Bay

Shelling Out

by Emily Kovach

The first rays of sunshine are peeking over Barnegat Bay in coastal New Jersey when Matt Gregg, 33, steers his boat out into the water. The cool air of early dawn isn’t tempered yet by the summer heat, and Gregg and one of his employees are headed out to harvest some of the oysters that have been growing on Gregg’s property, Forty North Oyster Farms, for between 18 and 24 months. Now that they’re considered market size, they’ll be sorted, counted and bagged, then taken back to a refrigerated van waiting on the dock. This is the twice-weekly summertime ritual that allows Gregg to finally share his oysters with chefs and other culinary-minded customers, after raising the baby bivalves since they were barely the size of quarters.

Gregg is a New Jersey native who followed his passion for sea life to the University of Rhode Island, where he majored in aquaculture. After graduation in 2006, he pursued a different passion—music—to New York City, where he worked for a competitive talent agency. After a few years, though, he began to feel pulled back to the water. He’d worked on fishing boats during summers in college and had always been intrigued with oyster farming, so he decided to see if it was an industry he could break into.

He wanted to operate his new venture close to his hometown, but acquiring land proved to be a herculean exercise in maneuvering through layers of bureaucracy. Gregg sighs as he remembers the arduous process.

“There’s no system in New Jersey that allows an individual who would be well-suited to working in the water to get through the process,” he says. “There’s a lot of regulations, permits and licensing, and I just started digging into it.” Gregg had also studied marine and coastal policy in college, and his existing familiarity with these sorts of laws helped guide him through
the red tape.

In 2011, Forty North Oyster Farms opened on a 6-acre plot of land. The moment was not just an important milestone in terms of Gregg’s career, but for the New Jersey oyster-farming community as a whole. While the wild oyster industry on the Atlantic Coast of the state was a viable, thriving industry in the beginning of the 20th century, it collapsed in the 1950s due to pollution, oyster disease and overharvesting.

“I’m pretty sure we were the first ones to harvest a Barnegat oyster in 50 years,” Gregg says.  

Forty North started small, with 40 cages, a little boat and 200,000 oysters. Now, it produces about 1 million oysters each year. Gregg works with hatcheries and does his own research to develop the best oysters possible for his growing conditions. 

“We take adult oysters, spawn them in a controlled setting and look at their genetics,” he says. “Just like anything you’re breeding, you want the fastest and strongest growing you can find.” 

His main oyster is called the Rose Cove (named after their location). Because their plot of coastline is exposed to the south, every afternoon in the summer the south wind kicks up waves that sweep in and tumble the oysters in their cages. This results in supersmooth shells with deep cups. The oysters themselves have a nice salinity, due to the clean ocean water coming in from just a few miles away. But what Gregg credits most with helping his oysters thrive is that his farm is surrounded by thousands of acres of undeveloped sea meadows, with freshwater ponds and sea grasses, whose nutrients run off into the bay during rain storms.

Oysters only grow when the water is over 50 degrees, which results in a six-month growing season in New Jersey. During those months, and in the off-season, Gregg focuses the rest of his energies on sales and marketing. When he’d first begun oyster farming, he reached out to local seafood wholesalers and got lukewarm responses, even though chefs were frequently asking him for his oysters. Even though becoming certified as a wholesaler was another huge exercise in licensing and regulation compliance, Gregg ultimately decided to go for it. “It would be a lot easier to be an oyster farmer and put my oysters on a truck and not think about that,” he says. “But we had so much demand locally.” 

In early 2017, to help offset some of the costs of wholesaling, Gregg and his friend Scott Lennox, another oyster farmer, founded the Barnegat Oyster Collective and reached out to seven other oyster harvesters in the area. So far, the collective is selling 60,000 oysters each month (a number that will double in the summer) to 50 restaurants.

After six years in the business, Gregg says he’s confident that oyster farming is his lifelong career. 

“You grow up and people tell you to follow your dreams,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s actually great advice, but for me, I got lucky.”