New train gardens go native

by Francesca Chapman
Posted 4/27/23

Deep into the pandemic, Beth Wright surveyed SEPTA’s Highland Station and saw silent tracks and an empty parking lot. She saw something else, too.

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New train gardens go native


More than two years ago, deep into the pandemic, Beth Wright surveyed SEPTA’s Highland Station near her Chestnut Hill home and saw what everybody saw: silent tracks, an empty parking lot, a smattering of dead trees and healthy weeds and rubble and trash that had piled up while the station was in a kind of hibernation.

Wright saw something else, too.

“It was conceived during COVID as a space for the community, an environment meant to be an oasis,” she said.   

With spring’s arrival, it’s clear that’s what the once-gloomy space has become – after Wright and a small army of donors and volunteers have cleaned, designed, planted and pruned the space into a brilliantly colorful new community garden. 

The Larocco family, who live up the street from the station, are among those volunteers. “Before Beth got to it, there was trash in the dirt, it was a mess, nobody would want to go there,” Tilly Larocco, 11, said. “Now it looks beautiful, there are blossoms everywhere. It’s like a picnic spot.”

The project is such a success that Wright recently received a grant from Weavers Way to work her magic with new plantings at the Chestnut Hill West station, one stop up the line.

At Highland, a large section along Graver’s Lane and bordering the tracks is designed to be an educational garden, Wright said, to demonstrate the beauty and importance of native plants. A similar focus is planned for Chestnut Hill West. 

Professional landscapers Wright consulted, including Christopher Sohnly, of Spruce Hollow LLC, urged her to read Douglas Tallamy, author of "Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants." Tallamy, a professor at the University of Delaware, advocates for planting indigenous trees, shrubs and flowers to attract birds as well as bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. Native North American plant varieties – think oaks instead of ginkos, milkweed instead of porcelain berry – help keep destructive invasive species at bay and support the pollinators that make our food chain possible, Tallamy said.

“I applaud this group taking a parking lot and trying to get some of these principles in action,” he said. “Earth stewardship is our personal responsibility. Not just the tree-huggers’. Everybody needs a functioning ecosystem.”

Wright shared this vision with professional and neighborhood gardeners, and donations began to flow. A gift from the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Tree Fund came first. A matching grant from developer Richard Snowden and gifts from neighbors brought the total to more than $8,000. Sohnly, Susan Galka of Romancing the Garden and Clearview Nursery provided plants and design expertise.

Cash and in-kind gifts provided for 15 new trees, including a swamp white oak, a redbud, a willow oak and three dogwoods; more than 50 shrubs including hydrangea, azalea, winterberry holly and viburnum; and more than 100 varieties of perennial flowers and grasses. 

But the considerable labor required to transform the space “is all volunteer,” Wright stressed. “I’m cheap as hell when it comes to spending the money we raised, and heavily reliant on neighbors’ goodwill.” Those neighbors helped clear the site, plant, weed, lay stone paths and build walls and fences. More help is needed to create signs and a website to identify plants and explain the benefits of the native garden, so homeowners can apply the teachings in their own backyards. 

Wright, a former fundraising executive, had to lobby official stakeholders for permissions and assistance with the Highland project. While SEPTA owns and maintains the track, platform and grounds at Highland, the Philadelphia Parking Authority owns the lot, SEPTA officials said.

At Wright’s urging, “SEPTA removed dead and diseased trees, and provided mulch. SEPTA routinely performs mulching and tree maintenance at our stations,” Ed Wallace, SEPTA director for Support Services, Strategic Initiatives, said in an email. “Ms. Wright also persuaded the PPA to restore water service.”

Activating a long-disused tap at the site earlier this year was a coup for Wright, who with husband Fabrizio Franco had been lugging five-gallon buckets from their home to water vulnerable new plantings. 

With the water finally running, she organized the most recent volunteer day on April 16. More than a dozen neighbors spent the morning working and planting six more winterberry hollies. 

Larocco was there raking, weeding and spreading mulch with family and friends. “I was kind of tired, kind of sore, but I ended up having a lot of fun,” she said.

Paul Meshejian, who also lives near the station, began volunteering at the garden last year after seeing Wright there again and again. He said he appreciates the opportunity to work the soil again in a way his apartment’s tiny plot does not allow – and to work on a collaborative project with neighbors. 

“This is a way for me to feel like I’m participating in my community,” he said. “There’s nothing glamorous about it, it’s just enjoyable to do.”

On his daily walks through the neighborhood, Meshejian sees that Wright’s initial vision of the garden as a community gathering space is coming to fruition.

“People do park their cars and have lunch there now. A woman in my building goes to work out in the garden. Kids go there on their skateboards, and learn to ride bikes.” 

Reduced commuter traffic may have helped inspire new projects at stations around the city.  Train ridership is at 53 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to SEPTA’s Wallace. Locally, the West Central Germantown Neighbors Association manages gardens at the Tulpehocken station, and the West Mt. Airy Neighbors Association is beginning work at Carpenter station, he said. There are garden clubs at more than 20 rail stations in the Philadelphia region.

Interested in helping out at Highland Station? Signs will be posted around the garden to promote the next cleanup day.