By Marion McParland
Gifts from the garden come in all forms – the beauty of a new blossom, nourishment from a freshly grown pepper or sweet potato, skills learned while growing, and the connection with others who share the love of plants and gardening. We look forward to sharing all of these gifts from the garden with you throughout the new year.
For Carly Freedman, Community Garden and Food Sustainability Program Coordinator at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pediatric Care Center, these gifts are bountiful. The Karabots Center opened in 2013, and since then has provided primary care services and programs to more than 33,000 patients and their families in West Philadelphia.
Created by CHOP to complement the Center’s model of community health and wellness, the Garden at Karabots cultivates a wide variety of fruits and vegetables under the direction of Freedman, with the help of interns and volunteers. Freedman recently became the first gardener ever employed by CHOP. In her role she is responsible for the garden as well as the educational programming designed around it.
With the support of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Community Gardens program, the garden receives thousands of organic seedlings that are distributed throughout the growing season. “The garden has been a member of PHS’s City Harvest program since its first year,” says Freedman. “We have received seeds, supplies, plants, education and support from PHS since our inaugural year.” Produce is grown by Freedman and team, then shared with local families experiencing food insecurity through onsite programming, Early Head Start and CHOP’s Healthy Weight programs. Since opening, the garden has grown 4.2 tons of fresh produce to share with the community, about 2,000 pounds yearly.
“The garden was an offshoot of this larger wellness vision,” says Freedman. “We are engaging with patients and their families about healthy food and nutrition, as well as providing them with hands-on experience in nature, through the garden.” She hopes to expand the offerings to include a farm stand where patients and their families can select what they would like to take home after their doctor’s visit.
Totaling 1200 square feet of growing space arranged in concentric circles of raised beds, the garden produces more than 50 types of vegetables, from lettuce, chard, kale, beets, peas, radishes, beans and cucumbers to tomatoes, squash and herbs. “It feels like a real gift to be able to connect the resources of CHOP and the garden to the community in this way, through the produce we grow and the experiences we offer,” says Freedman. “It’s an oasis in the city – the garden is very peaceful.” The orchard, planted in partnership with the Philadelphia Orchard Project, includes ten fruit trees and 250 feet of berry brambles with hardy kiwi, grapes, blackberries and raspberries. Perennials, including hibiscus, echinacea, bee balm, butterfly bush, and crocosmia – Freedman’s favorite -- fill the pollinator garden with fragrance and beauty.
“Growing food is one of the greatest gifts that we have in life,” says Freedman. “To nurture a plant through its life, then take it home and share it with others -- it’s such a joy. Sharing knowledge about growing and nutrition is one of the best gifts I give to others.”
A favorite monthly activity at the Karabots Center is CHOP’s Books and Cooks Series, led in collaboration with Families Forward, features story hours for children and healthy food preparation demonstrations and tastings using produce from the garden led by a CHOP chef. This literacy initiative focuses on healthy eating and food. Participants leave with the recipe card as well as two brand new books. “This program is so meaningful to me,” says Freedman. “To see the children and families reading and making a salad together is wonderful.”
The Garden at Karabots shares the produce grown, as well as hands-on experiences in the garden, May through November. “We are hoping to inspire and engage community members to start growing produce and flowers at home, in whatever space they have available, whether it be containers or window boxes, through the education we are offering,” says Freedman.
Freedman, who has farmed and gardened all over the world, hopes to expand the reach of the garden program to achieve the greatest impact possible on families in the community. “We’re learning from the first five years of growth in the garden. It’s very exciting.”