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Philadelphia's Bodine Street Community Garden
See how a band of neighbors in Philadelphia celebrate their city lot-turned-vegetable garden with family, friends, and food. With a charming garden, a variety of plants, and seasonal recipes, you'll be inspired to plot your own community vegetable garden.
The first rule of Philadelphia's Bodine Street Community Garden is that there really aren't any official rules. No one asks you to fork over membership dues (there are none), keeps tabs on how often you turn the compost, or silently seethes at the sprawl of your cucumber vines. The atmosphere at the garden, located in the Queen Village section of the city, is equal parts feel-good, family, friendly, and funky: Block parties regularly emanate from the 20 or so member gardeners, as do pumpkin festivals and potluck dinners. In 2008 and 2009, they won first prize in the vegetable-garden category of the City Gardens Contest, run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. If the scene seems a little too picture-perfect, it wasn't always so.
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Starting the Garden
In the mid-1970s, the vacant space in Queen Village was a dumping ground for construction debris and a popular shortcut for fleeing muggers. After a crime wave hit the area in the late 1970s and early '80s, a group of residents proposed closing off the lot and putting the land to better use. With the help of fencing, topsoil, and seeds donated by the local horticultural society, a vegetable garden was born.
Back then, Barbara Merdiushev says, the gardeners had to coax their neighbors into joining. These days, with a new generation living in the area's brick row houses and the latest iteration of the grow-your-own-food movement in full swing, anyone hoping to set up a tomato cage on one of the 12 (largely organic) plots faces a lengthy waiting list.
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Saving the Garden
But the garden's success came close to being its undoing. In 2003, a "For Sale" sign appeared on the garden gate. Terry Mushovic, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Association, a nonprofit land trust that works to preserve the city's gardens, says it's a pattern she has seen often. "The community would put a lot of effort into an empty lot, and the developers would respond and say, 'Wow, maybe we should think about building here,' " she says.
Garden members worked every angle they could think of, Tracy Levesque, who lives with her wife, Mia, and their daughter, Josephine, in a house that adjoins the garden, says: showing up at a neighborhood association meeting in "Save the Bodine Community Garden" T-shirts, meeting with developers and real estate agents, hiring a lawyer, and teaming up with the land trust. At last, they were able to enlist the help of a city councilman who used community development money to purchase the land and, in 2007, donate it to the trust. "It took four years," Levesque says. "It took a lot of work, but we did it. We saved the garden. Now it's saved forever. It's great."
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Dinner Parties in the Garden
If one of the group's recent dinner parties -- which consisted of two picnic tables overflowing with gardeners and their kids, a menu heavy on homegrown vegetables, a few crates of local beer, and Vampire Weekend playing on iPod speakers -- is any indication, the group isn't taking the space for granted.
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Preparing for the Party
Before the party, 7-year-old Ella, who likes to eat sorrel plucked straight from the plant, shucks corn with her dad, Stuart Goldenberg, and garden member Jessica Houser.
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Kids, who get to tend their own plot on the premises, put together this summer mix of tomatoes and herbs.
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The Garden Goddesses
On the north wall of the 3,000-square-foot lot there's a colorful mosaic mural called "The Garden Goddesses," which was installed in 2000 by local artist Isaiah Zagar with the help of people in the neighborhood. Peeking from behind some coleus, the mural makes a splashy backdrop for the candlelit dining table.
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Kim Fleisher, who joined the garden six years ago, snacks on grilled flatbread with a roasted-eggplant dip; she's a fan of making dishes with the garden's ingredients.
Ears of corn are brushed with cilantro butter before and after taking a turn on the grill.
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Seed Packet Party Favors
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Littleneck clams are often on the menu on garden grill nights. Tracy Levesque likes to serve them straight from the hot grates: "They pop open and they're perfect."
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Guests enjoyed a red-pepper dip topped with fried garlic chips.
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Grilled zucchini and yellow summer squash layered with basil, tomato, and tofu form a summery "lasagna."
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Golden seed heads of quinoa, planted as an experiment by Fleisher and her partner, Kate Peck, soar in the garden.
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Colorful cupcakes arranged in the shape of a sunflower around a small blackberry-topped cake have become a garden-party favorite. They were first made by Houser and another member in 2007 for a "We Saved the Bodine Street Garden" celebration.
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Plot Your Own
Whether you want to join an existing garden or create one, a great first stop is the website of the American Community Garden Association, a nonprofit organization that offers training, advice, and other services. Type in your ZIP code to get listings of local gardens, each with a description and contact information. The site has an abundance of free, downloadable handbooks and templates, including a "Community Garden Start-Up Guide," sample plot registration forms, and garden bylaws.
Bobby Wilson, the association's president, says he has seen the largest growth of community gardens in recent years at churches, schools, and senior centers.
Good to Know
The association offers a list of questions for prospective community gardeners to consider. (Vegetables or flowers? Conventional or organic? Who assigns the plots? Is liability insurance necessary?) A laid-back structure suits the Bodine Street crew, but many gardens benefit from bylaws and a manager, Wilson says. He recommends finding things members can do as a group -- such as donating produce to the homeless -- as a way to pull the garden together and also reach out to the community at large.
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