Up and down the rows of lush, reddish sunflowers, the eye-high corn, the feathery fennel, Brian Ferguson kept up a steady stream of conversation.
Did you notice the mulch? How about the irrigation hoses? Check out those ripe cherry tomatoes across the way!
Not bad for a city kid from one of Philadelphia's more troubled high schools, a 17-year-old who three months ago had no agricultural experience, but now spends six hours a day on a thriving farm in East Germantown.
On a third of an acre on a fenced-in, converted soccer field at Martin Luther King High, the new Seeds for Learning farm gives students a summer and after-school program - and a chance to master planting, cultivating, harvesting, and selling what they produce. Dozens of kinds of vegetables, flowers and herbs grow on the organic plot and are sold at City Hall, in the community, and inside King during the school year.
The farm is a partnership among Weavers Way Co-op, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, and Foundations Inc., the New Jersey nonprofit that runs King for the Philadelphia School District.
The farm is just the kind of innovation the Pennsylvania legislature was hoping for six years ago when it took over the district and gave 45 schools to private managers like Foundations.
But conditions at King have failed to improve as much as the district had hoped, and despite the kudos drawn by the garden since April, the School Reform Commission has been clear: If test scores and school climate don't get better, Foundations, and possibly the farm, could be gone.
Ferguson, a King senior in a bucket hat, baggy basketball shorts, and a loose white T-shirt, is so at home on the farm - set amid rowhouses and fast-food joints - that he has begun growing things in his East Oak Lane backyard.
"My mom always asks me to bring home collard greens," Ferguson said.
Plus, he said, it has changed the way he shops and eats.
Scarfing down a handful of just-ripe tomatoes makes you appreciate vegetables more, he said, and now he scans everything in the market for the organic label.
"We don't use any pesticides, and you don't know what's been done to the stuff from the other farms. And where else are you going to find sorrel?" Ferguson said, referring to his favorite farm snack, an herb he swears tastes like sour Skittles.
It's hard work under a hot sun, but Ferguson loves the skills he has picked up. His friends skip the farmer jokes, too, since Ferguson is also bringing home a paycheck, earning $7.15 an hour.
This year, Foundations and Enon provided $20,000 each in start-up money; Weavers Way, which has a thriving farm close to King and had already established a co-op program in some elementary schools, provides King a farm educator and some supplies.
In the summer, the farm operates four days a week, with four King student employees and a rotating handful of volunteers from the community and Enon. Weavers Way farm educator David Siller or a King science teacher is always on hand to supervise.
On a recent day, 10 men and women spread out on the compact farm, laying irrigation hoses, picking weeds, examining crops. Siller pointed to two kinds of cucumbers, four kinds of heirloom tomatoes, and peppers, summer squash, beets, beans.
"Look at this," Siller said, a hand sweeping over the patch. "It's beautiful."
One of the most gratifying things about the plot, he said, is the give-and-take with the community. Every day, someone stops by to inquire about what's growing on Stenton Avenue.
"People will be walking on the track and stop over to say, 'When can I buy this stuff?' " Siller said.
Profit from the farm totals about $400 a week this time of year, but should rise to about $1,000 weekly once tomatoes are in high season, Siller said. That money goes back into the farm, whose organizers hope to build a greenhouse to keep students busy in the winter.
Emerging from the rows of corn, Brandon Ritter rubbed dirt off his hands and said he had been astonished when a farm rose in his neighborhood.
Ritter, a volunteer who is 14 and entering W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences in Upper Roxborough in September, has been helping his grandma in her garden for as long as he can remember. He jumped at the chance to tend a farm so close to his Mount Airy home.
"I love this," Ritter said. "You're out. You're in the fresh air. It's definitely not sitting at a desk."
The farm is a bright spot for King, student Daylan Hill said.
"It's cool," said Hill, 17, a junior who has worked at the marketplace at King and hopes to secure a job on the farm someday. "I've always had a green thumb, so this works."
Leetta Johnson nodded. She's another junior and marketplace worker who hopes to tackle farmwork in the future.
"It's someplace to go," Johnson said. "I don't want to stay home."
Gwen Watts, who lives in West Mount Airy and is a member of Enon Tabernacle, lowered her wide-brimmed sun hat and said she treasured the two days a week she spent on the farm.
"Just to see what the earth can do is amazing," said Watts, who described herself as "a friend to soil, but never a farmer."
She's also glad to mentor King students.
"We talk about their lives, their futures," said Watts, a nurse.
Student Charles Mapp, a senior who works on the farm, isn't sure whether his future includes farming, he said, but he's certain the things he has learned about food will stay with him.
"I brought home some cabbage, and my mom was so excited," said Mapp, 17. "She said, 'Oh, we're cooking tonight.' "