Community gardens grow health as well as vegetables

by Stacia Friedman
Posted 7/6/23

We all know that buying organic produce is good for your health. But growing it is even better.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Community gardens grow health as well as vegetables


We all know that buying organic produce is good for your health. But did you know that growing it is even better?

With the gardening season upon us, we spoke with members and supporters of several of the Northwest’s community gardens, who had a lot to say about the unexpected rewards of tilling the soil with neighbors.

Take Vita Litvak, executive director of Allens Lane Art Center. When she moved into the Mennonite Meeting House Apartments in Germantown eight years ago, she took one look at the overgrown vacant lot next door and knew right away she wanted to get in there and start digging. 

“I grew up in Moldova on my grandparents' farm and was obsessed with gardening. I’m an artist and I thought of creative ways to use the land,” said Litvak. “The lot was a forest of six-foot-tall weeds and had been used to stash guns – the block has a violent history.”

Litvak knew about the 2018 University of Pennsylvania study that showed turning overgrown lots into gardens can reduce crime. “…Greening vacant urban land significantly reduces feelings of depression and improves overall mental health for the surrounding residents with a 29% decrease in gun violence near treated lots,” the study found. 

So Litvak went door-to-door, asking neighbors to sign a petition to turn the unsightly lot into a community garden and received an enthusiastic response. “I built one bed as a test and people shared their stories of growing up farming. More and more people got on our mailing list.”

Pastorius Community Garden now has 25 members and features a small fruit orchard installed by the Philly Orchard Project. “Anyone can come and pick cherries, apples and figs as well as raspberries,” said Litvak. “We also have a native pollinator garden thanks to the help of a Weavers Way grant.”

Of all the benefits the garden brings, Litvak said, perhaps the most easily measured is nutrition. “Fruits and vegetables lose their nutrients during the time between when they are picked and eaten, even if you buy organic produce,” she said. Most produce loses 30% of nutrients three days after harvest and vegetables can lose up to 55% of vitamin C within a week, she said, citing a study by the University of California.

More than just a source of good nutrition and well-being, Pastorius Community Farm is also a gathering place. “We built a stage in the garden where we have a free monthly music series featuring local talent and I present art workshops,” said Litvak. “Right now, it’s an important time to care for open spaces in the city due to all the development. It should be happening on every block, even if it’s small. It’s an important aspect of building strong communities and living joyfully in the world.”

Supporting Community Gardens

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) works to increase access to fresh, healthy food throughout the region and offers resources to Philadelphia’s 170 community gardens and urban farms. However, the actual number of community gardens is estimated to be 3,000.

“Community members come to us when they want to start a garden and we offer support, including a tool lending library that rents gardening tools free of charge,” said Justin Terezza, PHS outreach coordinator. “If a garden has pest issues or needs new raised beds, we will organize a work day and come out with volunteers.”

PHS community garden resources include educational workshops, providing seedlings, technical assistance and infrastructure improvements. They work with gardens and farms at every stage—whether it’s just getting started or long-established.

“More people wanted to start a community gardening during the pandemic which led to the creation of the Pleasant Playground Garden, 6720 Boyer St., two years ago,” said Terezza. “But we continue to see a resurgence because food prices are outrageous.”

“With rampant development, a lot of gardens are vanishing,” said Terezza. “Werner’s Garden, behind the former Fred’s Garage on Mt Airy Avenue, is being reduced in size or may vanish due to a new condo complex.”

Fortunately, Philadelphia has a Neighborhood Gardens Trust (NGT) that protects 51 of its green spaces. That includes the two oldest community gardens in Germantown: Nicholson Church Lane Garden, 234-248 Church Ln., started in 1987; and Pulaski Zeralda Garden, 4555-4539 Pulaski St., founded in 2006. Also protected by NGT is the largest community garden in our area, the Old Tennis Court Farm, 5407 Wissahickon Ave., founded in 2009 on the former tennis court of Germantown Friends School.

Visit a Community Garden

Whether you are interested in joining a community garden, creating a new one, or showing your children where food really comes from, visiting a Northwest community garden is a great place to start.

History buffs will be intrigued by Wyck Farm, 6026 Germantown Ave., which was cultivated for 250 years by members of the Wyster and Haines families. Besides its famous rose garden, Wyck offers a Home Farm Club, a large, cohesive, collaboratively-

run kitchen garden that hosts short lessons, hands-on experience, and a share of fresh produce when you volunteer.

The Farm at Awbury, 6336 Ardleigh St., a co-op farm center where produce is grown for Weavers Way, presents workshops, classes and goat walks. Bring the kids to Sunday Fun Day. Other community gardens to visit include Carpenter Lane Garden, 201 Carpenter Lane in West Mt Airy adjacent to the Carpenter Lane SEPTA Station and Hansberry Garden, 5150 Wayne Avenue which serves as a resource for environmental education and offers a lively concert series.