Let it Grow

Awbury Arboretum’s unlikely stewards let nature—and discovery—run wild

Awbury staff from left to right: Denis Lucey, Karen Flick, Heather Zimmerman and Chris van de Velde.Philadelphians are familiar with the sounds of city life: the laughter of kids walking home from school, bus engines and car horns on the busy streets, music flowing from rowhome windows. Amid the bustle in Germantown, a forest is quietly growing. The people entrusted with the 55-acre refuge at Awbury Arboretum believe that it’s a place to escape the hardscape, wonder at nature’s resilience and power, and maybe to fall in love.

Between a trickling creek bed on the grounds of Awbury Arboretum in Northwest Philadelphia and the abrasive honking of East Washington Lane, Denis Lucey is out on one of his many walks.

He stops to point out a mutated form of a snow drop flower and invites me to have a gnaw on a native spice bush. “It’s got an interesting flavor,” he encourages. “If you’ve ever been operated on, the orange dye they spray you with before they put the bandages on is a glue that originally comes from this plant.”

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Flour Power: Local Bread On the Rise

story by April White | photos by Emily Wren

Pete Merzbacher’s voice is muffled as he talks about his months-old West Philly-based baking company, Philly Bread. “It’s the flour,” he explains. “It’s everywhere. It’s in my phone now.” 

As Philly Bread’s owner and chief baker, Merzbacher, 23, transforms 250 pounds of GMO- and chemical-free flour each week into baguettes and boules for wholesale customers and a small but dedicated group of “bread CSA” members. Many discovered Merzbacher’s loaves through word of mouth or Facebook, where he announces his weekly specials—rosemary focaccia, olive and herb with orange zest, sunflower rye—and connects with Philly’s urban farmers and foragers to source ingredients.

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Dream Job

Sonja Claxton has always known what she’s passionate about, and now, as the Organizational Wellness Manager for Common Market, she has the title to prove it.

Earlier this year, Claxton was working at a health research company in Wayne. She liked her job, but felt disconnected from her roots in social and environmental sustainability.

Sonja Claxton, Organizational Wellness Manager, Common MarketWhile studying international business and economics at Temple University’s Fox School of Business and Management, she founded the student organization Students for Responsible Business, which later became Net Impact. She also pushed to make a business ethics class standardized business school curriculum.  Now,  Claxton “wanted to bring my network  into my job.”

Mirroring her work at Temple, Claxton and a coworker co-founded a sustainability awareness group in the office, where they helped colleagues recognize the negative effects of wasteful workplace activities and the benefit of using resources wisely.

“I didn’t feel I was a valuable asset to my company until I started to use my knowledge of the sustainability and health and wellness world to show leaders that sustainability practices are more effective than they think,” she says.

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The Lost Art of Found Food: If you know what you’re looking for, delicacies abound on the ground

David Siller’s talent for hunting out nettles, pawpaws, quince and dozens of other delicious, edible plants that grow wild in the region have made him a favorite of chefs at restaurants like Russet, Kennett, Pumpkin and Will. Will chef Christopher Kearse was Siller’s first customer when he was cooking at Pumpkin. “I showed up with ramps and nettles and told him about the other stuff I had,” recalls Siller. “He said ‘Bring it on.’”

How did you get your start as a forager?

I’ve been foraging professionally and selling to restaurants for four or five years. Before that, I was foraging for myself. I was the kid who would eat berries from the schoolyard. After college, I started learning more about plants. I’m a conscious harvester, which means listening to the environment and caring about the sustainability of the plants.

What is the attraction of foraged ingredients?

They taste awesome and they’re unique. It’s not just fiddleheads and ramps. The wild food world is so broad. I get excited about the uncommon things, like Cornelian cherries. I try to encourage chefs to get creative with uncommon ingredients.

What does it take to be a forager?

I have a truck, boxes and bags, a shovel or two, a scale and a knowledge of plants and locations. I’ll go about 100 miles in all directions. I have my eyes open all the time. Sometimes I’m just going for a hike and poof! There’s maitake mushrooms. It’s like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

So, anyone can do this?

I’ve seen people of all ages get into it. It’s good to have a teacher before you start. It’s definitely not a good idea to just go out and pick random leaves and start eating them.

David Siller is a professional forager from the Delaware Valley. If it’s edible and marketable, he knows where it grows. Visit him at yosoybean.com.

Beekeeper’s Bonus: Bees produce honey, pollinate plants, and occasionally provide a reminder to be mindful

story by April White | photos by Emily Wren“Beekeeping is a meditative practice,” says Adam Schreiber. “When you are working the bees, they require your full, undivided attention. If you don’t give that to them, they will let you know. They have a very demonstrative way of letting you know.” 

A hobby apiarist and former president of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, Schreiber, 41, works bees in colonies throughout the Fairmount neighborhood. He keeps hives in a community garden, in nearby Fairmount Park and even on the roof of his rowhome.

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Farm & Table: Three Philadelphia restaurateurs try their hands at farming

story by Liz Pacheco | photos by Neal Santos

Chef Jose Garces is in his outdoor kitchen making salmorejo—a cold Spanish soup similar to gazpacho. He adds bright yellow tomatoes to the food processor along with garlic, vinegar and baguette pieces. “A few years ago,” he says, “I would’ve made this with tomatoes from Mexico.” This afternoon, the tomatoes are from a very local source—Garces’ backyard, which doubles as a farm. This is the first full season for the 40-acre Luna Farm in Ottsville, which is named in honor of the Garces family dog as well as the brilliant nightscapes the property offers. The nearly 100 varieties of herbs and vegetables are organically grown for the Garces company restaurants—most specifically Philadelphia’s JG Domestic, which focuses on using local ingredients. But Garces isn’t the only, or first, Philadelphia chef to delve into farming. Mitch Prensky, owner and chef of Supper, is in his third year working with Blue Elephant Farm in Newtown Square, which grows solely for his restaurant and catering company. Last February, Andrea Rossi began cultivating in Orwigsburg on his farm, Grateful Acres. This spring, Rossi launched a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program through his restaurant C19. For these three chefs, the farms are creative challenges—they require money, planning, and of course, physical labor. At their restaurants, these chefs are no longer just cooking, they’re developing innovative models for combining the farm and the table.

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