By Melissa O’Brien
The “Love Where You Live” greening plan bloomed from the collective aspirations of the community members of the Nicetown and Tioga neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Together with the help of PHS, the plan’s own “Green Team,” Nicetown CDC, and Tioga United, this ambitious 3-year plan paints a vision of greener, more interconnected neighborhoods. Among the many strategies to bring this vision to fruition are two focus areas: 1) rallying neighbors and businesses to amplify access to fresh food, and 2) empowering residents to embark on their own gardening journeys, adorning their blocks with beauty.
This summer, PHS helped organize the first “Love Where You Live” Front Yard/Porch Gardening Challenge. Approximately 30 community members from different blocks within Nicetown and Tioga competed in the challenge over the course of 6 weeks, transforming their front yards and porches into beautiful gardens bursting with color. With prizes including a $300 gift card for first place, $200 for second, and $100 for third, a spirited atmosphere of healthy competition quickly emerged. We caught up with first-place winner Jeanie Marks to learn more about why she decided to participate, what inspired her garden design, and how the challenge brought her closer to her neighbors.
PHS provided each participant with a comprehensive gardening kit prior to the Front Yard/Porch Challenge. Each kit was worth $400 in value and included everything needed to get started: a 25-gallon big pot, a 3-gallon EarthBox, a window box or whiskey barrel, a variety of flower and herb transplants, potting soil, fertilizer, a hand trowel, a watering can, and gardening gloves. PHS also hosted a refresher workshop at Tioga Hope Park & Garden in June on how to best use the kits and gave away additional plants for participants to use.
The judges for the competition included PHS staff members and avid gardeners Sally McCabe and Michelle Ullman, as well as a resident and member of the “Love Where You Live” Green Team, Estelle Vaughn. The judges considered three key criteria for all submissions:
Aesthetic Appeal (33 points): Encompassing the beauty and ingenuity of the garden design, manifesting the participant's individual flair.
Plant Health and Production (33 points): Gauging the robustness of the flora and their productivity, a testament to the gardener's dedication and expertise.
Social Connections (34 points): Recognizing the garden's role in nurturing connections with family, neighbors, and the larger community.
Jeanie Marks, who took home first place, said her journey with the Front Yard/Porch Challenge began with a simple invitation from a neighbor. Curious about the details and eager to connect with her neighbors after moving back to Nicetown a year prior, Jeanie inquired further, learning that the challenge revolved around adorning yards and porches with vibrant flowers and plants. The catch was that participants had to adhere to specific guidelines while infusing their personal creativity into the mix.
Driven by her own passion and a touch of whimsy, Jeanie decided to introduce a unique stipulation to her entry: the inclusion of purple flowers. Purple holds a profound significance in her life: she was born in February (amethyst is this month's birthstone), it’s her favorite color, and it also serves as a tribute to the iconic musician, Prince. Prince's connection to the color and his music has always resonated deeply with Jeanie. Thus, her condition for participation was unmistakable: her garden would be graced almost exclusively by purple blossoms.
Armed with her dedication to Prince and her fondness for the color purple, Jeanie embarked on crafting what would soon become known as the "Prince Garden." Gardening isn’t a new pursuit for Jeanie; she has previously grown all of her own vegetables at home. However, this challenge presented a unique opportunity to merge her gardening enthusiasm with her artistic inclinations.
As she designed her garden, Jeanie drew inspiration from Prince's lyrics, his distinctive style, and the vibrant energy encapsulated within his music. Her creative impulses found expression in hand-painted rocks adorned with Prince's quotes and symbols, each contributing a touch of magic to the garden. To her delight, her neighbors began to notice these artistic additions, engaging in conversations about the musical references and celebrating the garden's unique character. “When I first moved back here, I only knew a few people on the block,” says Jeanie. “Now I know the whole block, and they know me as the purple house because of this challenge.”
Remarkably, Jeanie's garden also became an inspiration for others. Observing her efforts, neighbors were motivated to enhance their own yards and porches with newfound enthusiasm, each contributing their own imaginative twists to the challenge. As her garden flourished, so did the sense of camaraderie among them. Jeanie found herself sharing gardening wisdom, providing suggestions on safeguarding plants from wildlife, and offering her assistance whenever needed.
Much to her surprise, Jeanie was declared the winner of the challenge. Her Prince Garden had transitioned from a tribute to an iconic artist into a beacon of unity and creativity within the neighborhood. The recognition served as validation for the dedication, hard work, and passion she invested in transforming her yard into a living, breathing homage to Prince.
The Front Yard/Porch Challenge marked the beginning of an enduring source of inspiration for Jeanie. It motivated her to continue embellishing her surroundings while fostering a deeper sense of community. She says, “The flowers and all of that is nice, but we have to keep the block clean or else all of this work is for nothing.” Jeanie and her neighbors now gather on Saturdays to clean the block together and enjoy good food and company.
As Jeanie eagerly anticipates forthcoming challenges and opportunities to engage with her neighbors, she is reminded of the immense power that creativity in the garden can wield in uniting people. The purple blooms that grace her garden will serve as a perpetual reminder of the profound beauty that emerges when a community comes together for a larger purpose.