The land first cultivated by Philadelphia’s pioneering horticulturists is growing a new generation of gardeners.
By Martha Swiss | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
Chris Bolden-Newsome and Ty Holmberg.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, self-taught botanist John Bartram and his descendants identified, gathered, grew, and distributed plants, and they shared information with gardeners near and far. Today, their 45-acre property along the western bank of the Schuylkill River—now known as Bartram’s Garden—is a National Historic Landmark, which includes the restored home and gardens full of native plants and cultivars collected by three generations of the family. It’s open to the public and hosts a variety of popular events throughout the year. It serves as a Green Resource Center for PHS City Harvest gardeners, and this summer it hosted training sessions for the Green City Teachers program.
The Bartram family’s home and landscape have been preserved for visitors.
While visitors often go to Bartram’s Garden to appreciate its history as the oldest botanic garden in the United States, many people in the immediate neighborhood find an out-of-the-way corner of the site to be the main attraction. The Farm at Bartram’s Garden offers fresh organic vegetables and fruits in an area where healthy food can be scarce, and it provides community garden plots in which local residents can grow their own produce.
“Everyone has a right to nutritious food,” says Ty Holmberg, a codirector of the farm project. “Providing a place in the city where people can reconnect to the earth and each other and access healthy food has positive ripple effects that build both individual wellness and community strength.” The project is an inspiring example of the PHS mission at work.
A resident flock of wild turkeys.
Feeding the Community
Holmberg and codirector Chris Bolden-Newsome established the farm and community garden in 2012 through a partnership with PHS, the nonprofit John Bartram Association, and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. An abandoned baseball field and tennis courts at Bartram Village, a nearby housing development, were cleared, and the 3.5 acres were designated for the farm, which includes an orchard and 60 raised beds for the community garden.
The community plots are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and each is as unique as the gardener who works it. “I’m growing lots of mustards, kales, and greens; ground cherries, peppers, various herbs, and pattypan squash; and some marigolds and wildflowers for the pollinators,” says Shanna Mitchell, who tends two beds. “It’s been great to have fresh food that I know is not tainted with any chemicals.”
Shanna Mitchell tends her family’s plot at the community garden. The harvest from the farm includes sun-ripened figs.
Mitchell, who didn’t garden much before she had these plots, now feels “addicted” to working the earth and even built a small raised bed in front of her house a few blocks away. She cooks most of the food she grows and then shares extra with family and friends. “We’re into spices and different flavors,” she says. “We cook Caribbean, Cuban, African, and Indian dishes.” She dries herbs and is learning to make tinctures from them; she freezes kale and greens for use later and would like to learn how to can. She is also experimenting with saving seeds for next year’s crops.
Fresh food is far from the only harvest that Mitchell gleans from the garden. “Connecting with like minds and seeing people of color out there doing this work has been amazing,” she says. “The farm has been a godsend and a refuge. I can go out there and get my head straight.”
The 3.5-acre farm produces more than 12,000 pounds of food each season for sale at neighborhood farm stands. Local families sign up for plots where they grow their own fresh produce.
The farm and orchard that share the space with the community garden produce a wide variety of seasonal vegetables along with fruit from trees and bushes planted and maintained as part of the Philadelphia Orchard Project. The weekly harvest is sold at four farmers’ markets around the neighborhood.
“The idea is to provide healthy, nutritious, organic, and affordable food that is relevant culturally to the local community,” Holmberg says.
Each year, about 40 10th-grade students from nearby schools apply to work at the farm for a three-year stint; about half are chosen for the paid jobs. The level of responsibility increases as the teens gain experience—by the time they are high school seniors, they are managing the younger participants and helping the farm’s directors select the next group of student workers.
The students begin in February, starting seeds in the greenhouse and tending the young plants for the upcoming season. In spring they prepare the growing beds and transplant seedlings. Their main summer chores are weeding, watering, and staking crops and then harvesting and preparing them for sale. They also save seeds for the following year. In the first week of December, they put the garden to bed.
Audrey Martin cares for seedlings that are raised on-site for distribution to gardeners participating in the PHS City Harvest program.
Besides becoming experienced food producers, the teenage workers develop valuable life skills. Chefs teach them how to cook what they grow. Additionally, the students learn about nutrition, food justice, and the significance of culture and cuisine. They also become familiar with basic business practices by helping at the farmers’ markets.
Seventeen-year-old Tykia Jerry has worked at the farm for more than a year. “I’m learning about time management, responsibility, and how to empathize with people who are less fortunate,” she says. “I’m also learning how to eat healthy, and I’m grateful that I can get good food on a regular basis. I used to have soda and chips every day, but being a part of this program has helped me clean up my diet.
“The farm is another place I can call home,” she adds.
Students working at the farm participate in its community outreach program as well. “I adopted a block in our neighborhood and help the people living there set up their own gardens at their houses,” Jerry says. “We help them plant and check on the crops, and once a month we help them clean up the block. We also just spend time with them and talk to them about healthy ways they can cook the crops they grow. I especially like working with older people.”
The newly designed Ann Bartram Carr Garden is Philadelphia’s only replica of a 19th-century flower garden.
Now that the farm and garden are established, Holmberg and Bolden-Newsome are planning to raise funds for a multiuse building that will house a library of food publications and a kitchen for cooking instruction. “We’d like to be able to provide incubation space for small, local food businesses,” Holmberg says.
Good things happen, he adds, when people have a place where they can learn about food and grow it themselves. “By providing space for people to reconnect with the land and their food, we’re building community power.”
Martha Swiss, who lives in Pittsburgh, writes for Pennsylvania Gardener magazine. Bartram’s Garden is located at 5400 Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia; learn more at bartramsgarden.org.
Bartram’s Garden through the Years
John Bartram (1699–1777) purchases 102 acres southwest of Philadelphia.
William Bartram (1739–1823), son of John Bartram, publishes an influential book chronicling his three-year plant-hunting expedition in the American South.
Ann Bartram Carr (1779–1858), daughter of John Bartram Jr., takes over operation of the family nursery.
Carr exhibits a poinsettia at the first PHS Philadelphia Flower Show.
The Bartram family sells the property to Andrew Eastwick, who preserves the garden as part of his estate.
The City of Philadelphia purchases the property after Eastwick’s death with the assistance of a national fundraising campaign headed by Philadelphia nurseryman and city councilman Thomas Meehan, formerly Eastwick’s gardener, and famed horticulturist Charles S. Sargent, director of Boston’s Arnold Arboretum.
The John Bartram Association is established by his descendants. (In the present day, it manages the land in partnership with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.)
Sights to See
Stroll through 8 acres of beds filled with American native plants and cultivars collected by the Bartram family. Historic trees on the property include the oldest male Ginkgo biloba tree in North America, a 200-year-old yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), and a Bartram oak (Quercus × heterophylla). A native grass meadow includes beehives and offers a dramatic view of the Philadelphia skyline. The newly restored Ann Bartram Carr Garden features exotic imported plants formally arranged, as was fashionable in the early 19th century. Native plants and seeds grown on the property are for sale in the Welcome Center.
Walk through the meadow, along the waterfront, and under tall shade trees. Bring children to the Homeschooler Days and Little Explorers program. Attend a painting or photography class or a free outdoor concert. Tour the National Historic Landmark house and visit the stone cider mill John Bartram carved from a huge river rock. Enjoy annual events like River Fest in June and the Philadelphia Honey Festival in September.
Borrow a kayak or riverboat for free (any Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. through October 28) and explore the Schuylkill. “We provide the boats, life jackets, and instruction so everyone can experience and enjoy the river,” says Welcome Center manager Aseel Rasheed.
For Walkers, Runners, Bikers
Starting in 2018, a path called Bartram’s Mile will follow the Schuylkill River’s west bank from Bartram’s Garden to the Grays Ferry Avenue Bridge. After crossing the river, you’ll be able to continue on the east bank along the Grays Ferry Crescent Trail into central Philadelphia.