Monday, October 8, 2012

City Harvest

An urban farm in Philadelphia demonstrates how to grow good produce and a thriving sustainable community.  

A friend once described fall as a time when you could smell the chill of the air on a person when they came in from the outdoors. It was an odd description, but somehow I understood. With just one sweeping, crisp, cool gust of the wind the other day, all my senses seemed to change - colors, smells, sounds.

Autumn brings to us not only a turning of these elements, but a change in the mode of life. In the context of the design world, the lull of summer is behind us, schools of creativity and innovation are back in session, and there's a sense that a collective world of ideas is churning at an industrious pace.

In agriculture, of course, it means the beginning of harvest season and a time for hard work, a notion that evokes bucolic scenes of life out on a country farm - tractors, gravel roads, bails of hay. But those images are changing somewhat as urban communities are increasingly reawakening their long dormant ecosystems, and city farms and co-ops are popping up and flourishing like little oases. The urban landscape is greening, it's yearning for sustainability, and it's a beautiful thing to see.

In Philadelphia, Greensgrow Farms exemplifies this trend. Not only do they supply food and teach local residents about planting, sustainability, and healthy produce, they also serve as a supplier of soil and vegetative resources for the innovative residential Rain Check rainwater runoff program being run by the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD). In step with the bustle of harvest time, the PWD will begin rolling out installations of residential rain gardens, planter boxes, and other assorted "green tools" this week, in time before the freeze of winter sets in. Then, when spring comes, they will resume work on the pilot program with the start of the planting season.

The effort is one of many related plans by the PWD and other city departments to advance the implementation of green infrastructure improvements and set forth a mission to make Philadelphia one of the most sustainable cities in the nation. To make this happen they've reached out to a vast assortment of contracting professionals, from designers, to builders, to landscape architects, to engineers, and especially to the urban farmers.

Inside the greenhouse. Pic: Kelly Thompson.
Healthy urban herbs. Pic: Kelly Thompson.

Designer in Exile recently sat down with Greensgrow Farm Manager David Prendergrast for a discussion on their history, their services, and how they fit in with the Rain Check program. We were also accompanied by Milkshake, the farm's adorable but curious hog, who seemed to have a lot of fun chewing on my shoelace throughout the interview:

As Farm Manager, what essentially is your role here at Greensgrow?

I'm pretty much in charge of the overall look of the farm, the nursery end of the farm and most of the staff.

Could you tell us about Greensgrow, how long you've been around, what services and products you have to offer?

Greensgrow itself, we're in our 15th season, celebrating 15 years, so our first seven of that was basically a wholesale hydroponic farm, where we'd grow hydroponic lettuce and sell it to restaurants down in Center City [Philadelphia]. And from there we started having a CSA and farm stand. We grew from a 25 member CSA in the beginning to a 500 member CSA.

CSA stands for?

Community of Sustainable Agriculture, or as we here at Greensgrow like to say, "City Sustainable Agriculture." It's sort of a co-op opportunity where people can buy into the program and then we supply them with a basket of food every week, fresh produce, locally grown. We work with about 80 farms around Greensgrow itself to supply the food that we need to provide to our members.

Great. We've been blogging recently about the city and the Water Department's new Rain Check residential stormwater management program, which includes the installation of planters and rain gardens throughout the city. You're listed as a possible supplier for soil and plants for that program. Could you tell us specifically what you have to offer for contractors or even residents who'd like to take on such projects?

Sure. The nursery itself has about 5,000 varieties of plants to offer, some of which are drought tolerant, or water lovers. So it just depends upon the model they're looking for, the direction they're going in. But we have everything from trees, to shrubs, to perennials, vegetable starts - we run the whole gamut of the variety of plants they'd need to fulfill the mission of doing the rainwater runoff gardens.

The program, with which I'm involved to a certain degree, is looking for low maintenance plants, do you have any suggestions for any specific vegetation that would work in this regard?

Most of your grasses are low maintenance - they only mature once a season, but we also offer echinacea, a lot of native plants that take a lot less care to grow in the city environment or the Pennsylvania environment. It just makes it a little easier to maintain if you don't have a green thumb. A native plant is basically a plant that is cultivated and grown in this area, as opposed to a tropical vine or something grown further south that really can't live in our zone and takes some upkeep and care.

Do you have advice for the installation and planting stage for these projects, should the plants be watered right away? Do you have special tips on planting and placement?

Greensgrow Farms.
Our goal is to educate people on how to plant. We always say 'the right plant, right place'. So, depending on your sun needs, depending on the level of water it is going to get, we'll recommend certain plants that are going to survive in that environment. If you are in full shade situations, with gutters in the back of the house and trees everywhere, we'll recommend sort of a shade garden. If it's full sun, we'll recommend full sun plants. If it is for plants that get a little [more] water other than the rain gutter, then we'll recommend plants that may need a little care and upkeep, but also give a little more bang for your buck - they'll give you a little more show, a little more beauty throughout the season. And then there are the ones that you just leave alone, that are more drought tolerant - the grasses, what we call 'no kill' plants that you pretty much just put them in, leave them alone and they'll do their thing.

Do you provide the soils and gravel used in putting together the planter boxes?

We don't provide gravel, but we do provide 20 different varieties of soils, from your heavy clay soils up to your very organic non-growing soils. It depends on the varieties you're looking for and the plants you're going to be putting in.

Great. That's a lot of helpful information. Do you have any upcoming events you'd like to tell our readers about?

This weekend we have a fabric dying workshop, using natural products to dye fabrics, so it's using flowers and the essence of the colors that the flowers have to transfer onto fabrics. And that's this Saturday (September 22nd) and being done by Kelly Cobb who is a University of the Arts person who is going for a Master's Degree in fabric dying and fabric installation. We have our Fall Fest October 6th, which is a big fund raiser for us. We're expecting about 5,000 people. There's about 50 artists involved, some bands, a lot of kids activities. It's Milkshake's birthday, so I'll have a big cake for him.

Greensgrow Farms. Pic: Kelly Thompson

We have kitchen workshops every other weekend, gardening workshops every other weekend, we give out 50 workshops a season with both combined. So we actually show you how to start with seedlings from up to growing mature plants, how to take care of mature plants. Tree trimming, how to trim your trees, fall pruning all that kind of stuff. Putting your garden to rest this time of year, waking your garden up in the spring. So we try to go from start to finish, the whole gamut of how gardening works and what it does.

If people want to find out more about your farm where can they go?

They can go to our website, It has a list of the calendar and every activity that we do. It also has different events and news and projects we are associated with to green the neighborhood and bring healthy alternatives to the neighborhood as far as food goes and everything else.

Fantastic. Thanks for your time.

My pleasure.


Content on this page is under Creative Commons license (CC-BY-SA). Interview by D.A. DeMers. Photos by Kelly Thompson via Designer in Exile. More of Kelly's work can be found at For more on Rain Check and other programs from the Philadelphia Water Department visit  

Up next, a local lighting shop takes us to a magical world of vintage lamps.

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1 comment:

  1. It seems that being green can also mean bring in the green. Take a look at this statement in Naked Philly regarding the Big Green Block Initiative: 
    Sustainability certainly has its value. New Kensington property values have risen 10 to 20 percent since 2009, according to a Wharton study, cited in a recent 19125 Case Study prepared for the New Kensington Community Development Corporation by Community Development Consulting. All since the launch of urban sustainability initiative Sustainable 19125. Coincidence? Maybe not."

    - Tim R.