7 places to volunteer in a garden or farm in the Philly area this summer
Want to get your hands in the dirt? Here are farms and gardens where you can plant, harvest, weed, mulch, and more, to your heart’s delight.
A wide range of benefits are associated with gardening. Studies show it can reduce stress, depression, and anxiety, while increasing overall health and life satisfaction. The pandemic propelled interest in it to new heights, and many of us remain eager to keep bringing more nature into our lives.
But what if you live in the city? Most city apartments don’t include outdoor space, and although Philly has a wealth of community gardens, many require getting on a wait list. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start gardening now.
Across the region, plenty of farms and organizations invite you to volunteer, including some right in the city. Many actually rely on volunteers to keep their operations running.
“When I walk into our epicenter in Kensington, my entire body feels a shift. You’re transported from being in the density of urbanity into the sensuality of our land and our connection to the natural world, whether that be through the critters, smells, or vibrancy of the flowers,” says Meg DeBrito, executive director of Greensgrow. “Volunteers are absolutely essential to our operation, and in return, you get to learn about food and nutrition and yourself and the land.”
Even if you do have a garden, there are reasons to consider volunteering. For one, it feels good to volunteer, but it’s also an opportunity to learn from farmers and horticulturalists who can help advance your gardening skills. That said, most places don’t require experience. If you’ve never planted a tomato in your life, now could be your time to learn.
Here’s where to volunteer at a farm or garden in the region this summer.
Spread out across 13 acres in Horsham, Pennypack brings plenty of opportunities to dig your hands in the dirt. Volunteers support the farm staff in growing, harvesting, and distributing organically grown vegetables used in the farm’s CSA program, the Ambler Farm Market, and a food donation program that provides produce to area pantries. Come prepared to weed in the fields, harvest seasonal vegetables, and pack bags of produce for CSA members.
How to get involved: Fill out an application online. Once approved, you’ll go through an onsite farm orientation. After, you can log in to Pennypack’s volunteer portal to sign up for opportunities. “Some volunteers give a few hours; others have been with us on a weekly basis for more than a decade,” says Kristy Gregory, program coordinator at Pennypack Farm and Education Center.
Founded nearly a decade ago by neighborhood residents, Philly Peace Park is designed to bring free, organic produce to communities with limited access to fresh food, as well as provide educational opportunities for youth. The all-volunteer operation started on a vacant lot in North Philadelphia, and last summer, a second farm was established in West Philadelphia. Both welcome volunteers.
“We’re fence-free. People come and go as they please, and harvest and take what they like,” says Pili X, director of community partnerships at Philly Peace Park. “In turn, we ask people to volunteer, and we’ll also harvest produce and leave it out in baskets for elders who come through.”
You can show up on your own time and help with watering, weeding, and trash pickup. Every Sunday, each location hosts a weekly “volunteer party,” when you can also build beds, plant trees, harvest produce, and partake in other garden projects.
How to get involved: Show up any day of the week and get gardening, or come out on Sundays, when volunteers meet regularly (usually from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.) at both locations. You can also sign up online, says X, “but if you don’t hear back from us, we encourage people just to come out.”
Spend Thursday mornings with PHS on the waterfront at the Navy Yard, where you’ll help with weeding, deadheading, edging, planting, transplanting, and other routine maintenance of perennial gardens. Or head out to Jenkintown, where you can join volunteers Wednesdays and Thursdays at Meadowbrook Farm. Here, PHS guides volunteers in planting, grooming, pruning, mulching, and weeding. Look out for regular volunteer opportunities at Montgomery County’s Norristown Farm Park, too, as well as summer community garden workdays at locations citywide.
“Volunteers are 100% essential to PHS, and they have a huge impact on green spaces that we just couldn’t keep up on our own,” says Melissa Raffel, PHS director of volunteer programs. “It’s a really cool way to meet other people with similar interests, and we encourage you to try out different locations. Each place has different plants and different learning opportunities.”
Philly Orchard plants and supports community orchards in formerly vacant lots, community gardens, schoolyards, and other urban spaces, almost exclusively in low-wealth neighborhoods where people experience limited access to fresh fruit. With 65 orchard sites and a small staff of six, Philly Orchard is always looking for volunteers. Tasks include pulling weeds, spreading compost, pruning, planting, and fruit thinning. You needn’t have any experience with growing fruit, and in fact, it can be a great experience if you’re looking to learn, says Kim Jordan, co-executive director of the Philadelphia Orchard Project.
How to get involved: To find out about new volunteer opportunities, sign up for the volunteer newsletter or visit Philly Orchard’s event page. Currently, most opportunities are limited to six to eight people.
Interested in an ongoing summer volunteer experience? Greensgrow offers six-week programs at its Kensington farm as well as at Lutheran Settlement House at 1340 Frankford Ave. Opportunities include working in the native gardens, where you’ll learn about pollinator plants and building bio ponds, engaging in farm work such as harvesting and integrated pest management, and carrying out general maintenance tasks, such as moving wood chips and weeding.
“You’ll get a lot of experience with different pieces of land and production processes within it, and a hands-on experience to take back to your own communities,” DeBrito says. “Experience isn’t required, but curiosity is necessary, and a willingness to come ready to do hard, manual labor.”
Greensgrow also regularly hosts one-off opportunities at its farm, such as planting days, garden bed clean-outs, and tree pruning days. Show up with gloves, sunscreen, and water, and wear thick-soled, closed-toe shoes.
How to get involved: Applications for the six-week programs will be posted online by mid-May. Eight to 10 volunteers will be selected for each. To learn about one-off opportunities, sign up for the email newsletter.
This 50-acre historic arboretum offers opportunities to partake in planting, greenhouse propagation, orchard maintenance, and more. You can also sign up to specifically volunteer in its four-acre Sankofa Community Farm, a production and education farm rooted in the African diaspora experience of Southwest Philadelphians. Annually, the farm produces more than 15,000 pounds of food and hosts hundreds of volunteers. Bring water; everything else is provided.
How to get involved: Register for on Bartram’s events page. Currently, events are usually capped at 10 to 15 people.
Built in 1744 as a summer home for the Wister family, this historic landmark houses a two-acre farm that now serves as a hands-on educational opportunity for teens. Those aged 12 to 18 can sign up for the Grumblethorpe Youth Volunteers, a program that teaches participants about vegetable and ornamental gardening, orchard maintenance, and more.
“There’s the lush garden, but also the history to learn about and educational cooking opportunities using what we grow from the garden,” says Grumblethorpe operations manager Michael Muehlbauer. “Typically, kids stick around through high school once they join, so it has this family vibe.”
The youth volunteers also meet monthly for their own projects, such as making jams and ice cream, or for field trips. Teens from the Germantown neighborhood are encouraged to apply, but the program is open to everyone. Grumblethorpe is also looking for a few regularly dedicated adult gardeners to volunteer on Fridays, anytime between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. A background in gardening is preferred but not required.
How to get involved: Teens looking to sign up for the Grumblethorpe Youth Volunteers can email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time to meet with the program manager. After an onsite tour, you’ll decide whether you want to move forward. Adults interested in volunteering weekly can email Muehlbauer at email@example.com. A background check and child abuse clearances are required.
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