The food we grow is a portrait of our vibrant, resilient city

Photo by Neal Santos

Photo by Neal Santos

The Urban Kitchen Garden

by Alex Jones

The term “kitchen garden” conjures an image you might see in a history textbook: A woman, probably of Western European descent, harvests something delicious and at the peak of ripeness from a large, bountiful patch of cultivated land mere yards from what is almost certainly a large and well-appointed kitchen.

Julia Child or Martha Stewart might pop into a kitchen garden, basket on her arm, to grab a few juicy tomatoes or snip some lettuce leaves and herbs to throw into a delightfully simple salad. It’s a seemingly effortless—and aspirational—image.

It’s also not an image most of us can relate to: While some lucky Philadelphians have the space to grow a portion of what they eat on their own property, most don’t have a square inch of ground to call our own. Instead, we grow herbs in window boxes, peppers in pots set out on stoops, leafy greens on fire escapes and get our hands dirty pulling weeds in community gardens, sometimes more than one.

Rather than emerging from the garden in full makeup and soft focus, we’re usually covered in soil, sweat and bugs, cursing the squirrels who got to our Brandywine tomatoes before we did or stopping by on the commute home from work to see that the harlequin beetles have turned the collard leaves into Swiss cheese. We’re often just turning the hose on for a few minutes, pulling the biggest weeds and quickly harvesting the ripest produce before shuffling off to the next obligation.  

That hot, messy, bug-filled (and belly-filling) world has a lot more in common with historical kitchen gardens than you might realize. Kitchen gardens—any plot or place to grow food for domestic use—were always the gardens of the people. They stand in contrast to the manicured formal gardens on estates that were originally more of a display of social status than anything else. In the second half of the 20th century in America, that drive to display morphed into the middle class centering their leisure time gardening activities around lawn care and ornamental gardening. 

“Historically, gardens were a thing of the rich and wealthy—the nobility,” says Tom Reber, horticulturist at Southwest Philadelphia’s Bartram’s Garden. “Except the kitchen garden, [which] was the one garden space that is really pervasive throughout history.” While space dedicated to turf—lawn, that is—was the high mark of status, kitchen gardens were essential to survival.  

Though John Bartram was called the “greatest natural botanist in the world” by Carl Linnaeus, a contemporary credited with founding modern taxonomy, Bartram was a farmer by trade, and much of what we know today as Bartram’s Garden, the oldest existing botanical garden in the country, was pasture where livestock grazed. When Bartram settled here in the early 18th century, a huge swath of gently sloped, south-facing land between the Bartram house and the river served as the kitchen garden. There, crops to feed the Bartram family—and hired farm laborers—were grown and harvested, then prepared or preserved for the winter in the nearby kitchen. 

“You can truly understand a culture through what the common people were growing, cooking and eating as a matter of basic survival,” says Reber. Examining the kitchen garden “gives you a really good snapshot [of] what the culture was, the food that people were eating.”  

It’s a point that’s immediately illustrated if you walk a few hundred yards west of John Bartram’s historic kitchen. On a former Parks and Recreation baseball diamond lies the Community Farm and Green Resource Center, a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships that’s made possible by a collaboration among University of Pennsylvania, Bartram’s Garden, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Fairmount Park and the city of Philadelphia. It’s been in place since 2012. The site produces around 12,000 pounds of food each year, and farmers Ty Holmberg and Chris Bolden-Newsome strive to address the community’s needs through the lens of food. “With our neighbors and high school farm interns in Southwest [Philadelphia], we work at the crucial intersections of race, class and economic power to [lift] up community experience and agency in the local food system,” Bolden-Newsome writes in an email. “We do work in majority African-American communities, and so we emphasize and engage aspects of African-American diaspora culture pertinent to our work.” In the garden, crops such as okra, sorghum, collard greens, sesame, bottle gourd (or calabash) and peanuts provide a point of engagement that can open up conversations around culture, geography, history and nutrition.  

Community activists, immigrants, entrepreneurs and individual Philadelphians are growing their own food all over the city. No matter the reason—food security, business, leisure or as a tool for systemic change—we’re engaging in an activity that’s been key to human survival for much of the globe for the past 10,000 years. 

The dream of a Germantown kitchen garden turns into a business

Amanda Staples, owner and co-founder of Germantown Kitchen Garden, started out with a desire to combine aspects of city and country life: She wanted to grow her own food, but she wanted to do it in the high-density environment of the city. To prepare, she and her former partner interned at a farm in Lancaster County to learn the trade. In 2008, they heard that a half-acre vacant lot in Germantown was for sale and took the plunge. They set about clearing years’ worth of overgrowth, hauling out rubble, and bringing in literal tons of compost to rehab the site. “We both really like[d] the idea of calling it a kitchen garden, because it has a pretty unique [structure],” Staples says: The property is surrounded on three sides by a 12-foot-high wall. “It’s sort of reminiscent of these old European home gardens,” she says, “and [embodies] the idea of growing a bunch of different things in one space and having flowers and herbs and vegetables that we use every day.”

While Germantown Kitchen Garden began as a small CSA for Staples and her friends, she eventually transitioned to a farmstand model and now supports herself through the business. Through a combination of customer feedback and getting to know her space over the years—learning that what grows well in one spot might not do well in another—Staples fine tunes her offerings every season. 

“The things I'm most excited about are fresh greens,” says Staples—like arugula, mixed greens, head lettuce, kale and collards—which are harvested the day before or the morning of her farmstand. “I see people notice that difference [in freshness] immediately.”

This season, Staples is working to incorporate more flowers into her growing space, both to enhance the look of the garden and to cut and sell to her neighbors. “[I’m growing] cafe au lait dahlias, which are all the rage right now, [plus] three different varieties of cosmos,” says Staples, who is also growing ornamental grasses and a host of beautiful flowers—digitalis, baptisia, echinacea—where trash and rubble used to reign.

In Philadelphia, the city currently owns many vacant lots like the one Staples purchased from a private owner. With the Philly Land Bank open for business in late 2015, city officials hope to streamline the process through which private citizens and developers find, research and purchase just under 9,000 vacant lots for purposes like building housing, opening new businesses, gardens and other projects to address community needs. 

Resilience through gardening for longtime residents and newly arrived immigrants

Growing your own food can be more than a delicious end in itself. It can be a form of leisure and relaxation. It can be a learning tool or an act of economic necessity. It can be a way to understand a specific place—by its climate, its soils, its weather. It can be a way to connect with relatives, or family, history, nature or a larger community.

At 11th and Dakota streets in North Philadelphia, Philadelphia Urban Creators (PUC) have worked with their neighbors to establish Life Do Grow urban farm and community garden. These spaces serve as the nexus for the organization’s work to uplift and strengthen this community through activities that range from restorative justice programs to pop-up art exhibitions—and it began with food access, the meaning of the kitchen garden distilled down to its most basic definition. 

“The food for us is [a] staple [activity], but it’s just the nucleus [of] a way, way, way, way larger movement,” says Jeaninne Kayembe, co-executive director at PUC. “And food access—the more people have access to resources, the more they can do. That’s our theory of change. As urban creators, we want spaces that we can create that are devoted to access to resources, food being the main one. That’s how we’re going to be a better Philadelphia.”

Since 2010, the group has worked with this community on the edge of the ever-encroaching Temple University campus. Kayembe remembers an early trip she and other organizers took to New Orleans to work on an urban farm, an experience that shaped the direction of PUC. 

“This urban farm was in the Lower Ninth Ward right near where the levee broke,” she says. “There’s no grocery store within miles, [it’s] a food desert thing. And when we saw that, the young people that we were with [were] like, whoa, the Lower Ninth Ward really looks like North Philly.” 

The idea for their project developed into food access work, and it came into focus when they secured the 11th and Dakota space, which was across the street from one of the last high-rise housing projects in the city. They began with cooking classes, teaching kids and parents how to cook healthier versions of their favorite foods. Once they had vegetables to harvest from the farm across the street, the produce became a part of their curriculum. And when organizers learned that some community members had been growing food to prepare and sell to their neighbors, they wanted to support that activity—so the Urban Creators helped them build the community garden, which five families now maintain with the organization’s support. 

“When we first started, we had different [people] with different knowledge of growing things, so not everyone really knew cultural relevancy to the food,” explains Kayembe. “So of course we had rhubarb and purple carrots and stuff that we think is cool and love as millennials. But as far as [community members] Miss Pat and Miss Cleo, the things that they needed were collards, broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes—very staple African-American or Spanish-influenced cuisine type foods.”

Now, the Urban Creators supply free fresh produce from the urban farm to community members and sell surplus to restaurants to sustain their programming. Last fall, their community reached an important milestone: The families growing in the PUC community garden were able to supply their Thanksgiving dinners with homegrown food—everything but the turkey and cranberries. 

“The community is completely transforming itself around this garden, which happens when things are done in the grassroots way, with community in mind, and not just someone coming in and doing something without any community buy-in,” says Kirtrina Baxter, community organizer for the Public Interest Law Center’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative and Life Do Grow’s farm manager for the 2016 season. “They take the time, Jeaninne and Alex [Epstein, co-executive director], to really build relationships with people in the community. Neighbors know who they are, they support them.” 

Food gardening might not be for everybody, but it is for anybody. When people ask the Urban Creators what it cost to start their farm and garden, “We tell them zero dollars,” Kayembe says, “because that’s how we started ours—with zero dollars.” The staff spent their first five years of operation paying themselves in produce. “That’s really our message—not [that] you just grow a garden or food for free, you can create whatever space you need to grow [with] whatever resources,” says Kayembe.

On the other side of the city in South Philadelphia, the Nationalities Services Center’s (NSC) Growing Home Garden at 8th and Emily streets serves as a space for food access work of a different type: providing 106 resettled Bhutanese and Burmese refugee families with individual garden plots, as well as technical support throughout the growing season. A larger space at 25th and Dickinson streets will debut this year: the Growing Together Garden, two and a half acres that will serve Congolese, Burmese and Bhutanese families as well as Point Breeze residents and feature NSC’s first weekly farmstand, where Philadelphians can purchase unique items grown in the garden. 

NSC’s gardening programs grew out of a desire by resettled refugees for familiar and culturally appropriate ingredients, with some families traveling long distances by public transportation to stores in New Jersey that stocked the items they sought. “The obstacles [overcome by refugee families] and the great extent they went to get things that they wanted to just be able to, in their own homes, cook food that tastes familiar and maintain cultural traditions were just huge,” says Juliane Ramic, senior director of Refugee and Community Integration. The Growing Home and Growing Together gardens address this issue by providing access to growing space and other gardener support, but the benefits to refugee communities go beyond the produce that gardeners bring home to their kitchens.

I spoke with Dropada, who came to Philadelphia in 2010 via a Nepalese refugee camp with her husband and son; she began gardening at Growing Home in 2013. She describes using oxen to grow wheat and rice for export in her native Bhutan; here, she and her fellow gardeners from Bhutan grow hard-to-find varieties of eggplant, basil, Bangkok hot peppers, Thai chilies, and greens like Florida broadleaf mustard (also known as Indian mustard), basil and roselle, a member of the Hibiscus family. When the gardeners can’t source seeds locally, NSC will hunt down the varieties they seek. 

“Ever since [joining] the garden, I’ve met with new friends, and the garden can help everything about that,” Dropada says through an interpreter. “It’s better together.” One challenge for garden organizers is proving to these gardeners that their favorite crops can be grown in a small space—something NSC is hoping to do with cassava, a staple crop for the city’s Congolese population, this year. While a change in climate and space limitations take some adjustment, the gardeners bring their own expertise and traditions, such as seed saving, to the garden. “We grow our own, and we deposit the seed in our own home,” says Dropada. “We keep and dry and we keep in our own house, and next year [we can plant]. Seed saving is a lot of work.”

Food plays a key role in refugee resettlement from the moment families arrive in Philadelphia, says Ramic.  

“We take them to their new home, which has been furnished with community contributions, but we always have a hot, culturally appropriate meal [ready for them],” she says. “We know that when you have traveled so far and you are giving up everything that is familiar—a community where your language is spoken, where your culture is so different, where your religion is so different, that the one thing that unites and makes you feel you can make it is food.”

A health crisis sparks a kitchen garden, and two new businesses

One of the most important aspects of the kitchen garden is—variations in climate aside—the potential it gives a gardener to decide what to grow and eat. A gardener might seek to stock her kitchen with her own culture’s traditional foods, or favorite foods, or expensive foods that are cost prohibitive to buy. She might seek to grow something she’s never tasted before, or something that will benefit her health. There’s nothing like armfuls of ultra-fresh kale or lettuce to spur a gardener to up her veggie intake.

For Sloane Six, the entrepreneur behind the Mainland Inn and Quarry Hill Farm in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, a breast cancer diagnosis eight years ago led to examining her diet, and she challenged her family to grow their own food using organic practices. Her personal revelation about food and lifestyle turned into two businesses that operate in a closed loop—another expansion of the principle of kitchen gardening to commercial scale. 

She’d already bought several acres of farmland to keep it out of development in an area where townhomes were springing up like mushrooms, and sustainably raised and humanely treated animals were especially hard for her to source. Six’s quest for healthy food in her own kitchen morphed into a 110-acre livestock operation with 7 acres devoted to vegetable production, and an additional 60 acres in hay production to feed the farm’s ruminant population in winter. 

“I couldn’t find people that were pasturing pigs and chickens and sheep and giving them the kind of care that I wanted to see them get, so now I’m a full-fledged farmer,” says Six.

You could say “locally sourced fine dining” about dozens of restaurants in the city and its environs, but Chef Max Hosey and his team at the Mainland Inn have the privilege of executing a farm-to-table menu at the end of a very short supply chain: In season, the bulk of their produce and meats are raised about 2 miles away at Quarry Hill Farm. Others, like salad greens and herbs, are grown in raised beds near the restaurant’s patio or under grow lights in the 18th-century building’s basement. 

What the inn can’t source from Quarry Hill, it purchases from organic farms in the area and from sustainable sources for nonlocal items such as citrus and seafood. Even the drinks menu is bolstered by what’s in season or what’s been preserved: In summer, ground cherries and averna combine for one of Six’s personal favorite cocktails, and winter crops like beets and carrots are juiced as basis for refreshing winter cocktails. A corner of that basement indoor farm is dedicated to cultivating botanicals like valerian and quinine to be used one day in collaboration with a winery to create a house-made vermouth.

“It’s everything you’d think it would be,” says Chef Hosey of the relationship between his kitchen and Quarry Hill. “[I’m] a kid in a candy store, basically. Especially once summer comes around, once things start to grow—it’s amazing.”

The highways bordering the pastures surrounding the Mainland Inn would look out of place to John Bartram, but he’d instantly recognize what guests will see as they approach the inn for a locally grown feast this summer: sheep and lambs grazing the grassy slopes in accordance with their nature. Separated by 30 miles and a little less than 300 years, Bartram would have raised his crops and animals with this same philosophy.

No matter the time, or the neighborhood. It’s the same for every cook growing ingredients outside the door, around the block or just down the road—pure joy when the harvest is ready for the kitchen.