Philadelphia Metropolis


Urban Oasis Building 101

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By Louisa Alexander

Years before buying my first home in West Philly, I longed for a real garden.  I admired lush front yards filled with flowers and imagined tending a leafy urban oasis of my very own.

When home ownership finally became a reality, I started planning. Had I known then what urban gardening would entail, I might never have tried.

The garden of my dreams had humble beginnings.

My partner, Lori, and I chose a house that featured a cement front "yard" surrounded by a rusty chain-link fence.  Weeds sprouted from every crevice.  Our dated front porch featured jalousie windows and a horrific stucco job.  The tired facade begged to be hidden by a trellis filled with flowering vines, maybe even an ornamental tree.  And so that first spring, we trekked to Greensgrow (our friendly local nursery) and bought full sunflowers, two decorative spruce trees, and a dozen pots to start our container garden.

The blazing afternoon sun killed everything by the end of summer. 

Unfazed, Lori and I consulted our friend Carrie, a master gardener, who suggested drought-resistant plants.  The following spring, we returned to Greensgrow for an assortment of sedum and flowering yarrow.  Before long, our container garden had grown to two dozen colorful, overflowing pots and two towering bamboo plants.


It was time to tear up the concrete slab, which we did with help from a burly male friend and a couple of sledgehammers.  We were ready to celebrate until we realized that disintegrating brick chunks permeated every inch of the soil.  It took nearly a month to dig up the broken bits and amend the fallow soil with rich compost.

Our backs aching from weeks of hard labor, we finally transplanted our container garden into the ground.  At about the same time, our block received a grant to plant trees in front of each house. We faithfully watered our twiggy Newport plum tree and placed decorative planters on either side of the tree pit.  Our scraggly garden began to take shape.  Butterflies and birds took refuge from the hot asphalt and concrete.  Neighbors complimented our efforts and even asked for gardening tips.  Things were looking up.

Then Philadelphia decided to fight back--and this city fights dirty.

The toddler next door began toddling into our garden, stomping plants and wreaking havoc with glee.  We retaliated by installing a low border fence.  (I considered planting some poison ivy, but decided that was too evil.)

The low fence didn't prevent the older neighborhood kids from tossing their football right into the garden, stepping over the fence, and squashing everything.  Tomcats relieved themselves in the salvia.  Apocalyptic thunder storms with gale-force winds severed tender bamboo shoots.  Someone broke off half of the Newport plum's delicate branches.  Picking candy wrappers, malt liquor cans, and dime bags from the sedum became a daily chore.

One Fourth of July weekend, a passerby ripped our butterfly bush right out of its container.  And on a bright spring day earlier this year, I found a crumpled wig dangling from the newly sprouted stonecrop.  Not just a hair extension or two--an entire wig.

I spent nearly as much time fuming about these incidents as I did actually enjoying the garden I had worked so hard to establish.  Clearly, I concluded, this was Philly's way of telling me to quit, that all of my time, energy, and money had gone to waste. 

Then a strange thing happened.  While picking up trash in a vacant lot across the street with a few neighbors, the topic of gardening came up.  The overgrown lot had been an eyesore for years, attracting litter and unsavory activities.  We hatched a plan.

A week later, we rented a van and headed to the big box hardware store, where we bought lumber and cheap perennials.  Two dozen neighbors and volunteers descended on the lot, pulling weeds, building raised vegetable beds, planting flowers, and even installing a composter.  In just a day, the formerly neglected lot was transformed into a modest community garden. 

Every week it seems a neighbor has planted something new: a strawberry plant here, a day lily there.  Early in July, Lori and I harvested our first bushel of vegetables.  There have been setbacks, no doubt--twice now someone has run over one of the sidewalk planters a neighbor built--but slowly, this community project has restored my faith in urban gardening.

So take note, novice green thumbs.

At every turn, humans, animals, and even Mother Nature will thwart your attempts to liven up the bleak concrete wasteland. But, don't give up. Find a supportive community of like-minded gardeners; pick the blunt wrappers from your flowers, and one day you just might have your own urban oasis.


Louisa Alexander still perseveres at gardening in her West Philadelphia neighborhood.



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