Karen Heller: From bad seed, a bumper crop of goodwill
Since vandals ravaged the children's community garden on Easter weekend, Vanoka Morris-Smith's life has blossomed anew. The garden, too. In the last seven weeks, she's received 136 letters, a nursery of plants, a load of equipment, $6,000 in monetary contributions, and special recognition from Mayor Nutter at the launch of Greenworks Philadelphia.
Since vandals ravaged the children's community garden on Easter weekend, Vanoka Morris-Smith's life has blossomed anew.
The garden, too.
In the last seven weeks, she's received 136 letters, a nursery of plants, a load of equipment, $6,000 in monetary contributions, and special recognition from Mayor Nutter at the launch of Greenworks Philadelphia.
"I was kind of crying," she said, standing in the garden.
Letters arrived from as far away as Florida. "Do not let one bad thing that happened keep you from doing good," a donor wrote. Contributors include a former teacher as well as the daughter of a former principal at Blaine Elementary. The school, across the street at Berks and 30th in Strawberry Mansion, uses the garden as its laboratory.
Perhaps Morris-Smith had a wish list, the Mayfair Community Development Corp.'s Reese Hartey and Brian Patrick King asked after the vandalism was first reported.
"I requested a dozen of everything, thinking they would come up with maybe two or so items," said Morris-Smith.
On Thursday, King delivered a dozen watering cans, a dozen pairs of gloves, and a dozen shovels for the children, plus a mulch mower. Last weekend, Morris-Smith twisted her right ankle and suffered a knee contusion stumbling on her stairs, one door down from the garden. Somehow, she persuaded King and two associates to mow and weed for three hours.
"It's very rewarding for us. A lot of people from the neighborhood came out. You could tell they weren't used to people doing this," King said of Strawberry Mansion, the historic, scarred neighborhood where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Daily, another gift flowers.
Yesterday, 23 college interns from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society cleaned the garden, filling raised beds with several tons of premium soil in 19 new cedar boxes where once there were eight.
A UPS truck arrived with another gift from the Mayfair CDC, self-watering earth boxes for vegetables.
Naturally, a dozen.
The Horticultural Society's Hannah Schulman planted Yankee Bell peppers, Early Girl tomatoes, and Nadia eggplants grown from seedlings by Philadelphia prison inmates in partnership with PHS. The seeds, in a sense, traveled full circle. "Many of the prisoners grow seeds that are returned to their original neighborhoods," said Eileen Gallagher, project manager of Philadelphia Green's community gardens.
She listed astonishing gardens blooming throughout the city, Edens among the concrete.
"To be involved in gardening, you have to be dedicated or a little crazy," Gallagher said.
The beauty of Philadelphia, Gallagher noted, isn't that there is one Vanoka Morris-Smith. "There are 200 gardeners like Vanoka."
Strawberry Mansion is flush with such efforts. Around the corner on 31st Street is a vegetable garden, with a grape arbor, cabbage, collard greens, kale, a coop with egg-laying chickens. The East Park Revitalization Alliance, a few blocks farther, created a 300-tree orchard while transforming vacant lots into green space. Director Suku John runs a six-week summer camp teaching children to plant vegetables and fruit, learning to eat healthy by growing food.
The challenge is to stop the destruction from reoccurring. Morris-Smith has a fairly good idea who the vandals are. They left their mark, though not indelibly, on the shed spray-painted "31st Street Boys" and "NP Boys," for North Philadelphia. "I approached one of the fellows and told him I needed his help painting."
"Yes, Mrs. Smith," he answered immediately.
She's recruiting the others, believing that if the plunderers help in the garden's resurrection, they'll be less likely to strike again. "Just as there are good bugs and bad bugs in the garden," Morris-Smith said, "there are good bugs and bad bugs in the neighborhood."
Da'Shun Abney, 11, an avid member of the after-school gardening club, helped interns assemble the earth boxes.
"It was looking terrible. It's coming along quite nicely," he said, noting his favorite vegetable is broccoli. "It's going to look the best."
Contributions paid for a greenhouse, yet to be assembled, that will harvest rare, heirloom, and open-pollinated seeds. Out of the damage, the garden has brought new friends, plants, fresh soil, renewal. "We're thinking of adopting the garden," said Mayfair's King, "developing a partnership, and coming out to help two or three times a year."
A fellow gardener wrote to Morris-Smith, "Never give up hope. Every little seed you plant is a little seed of hope," her letter swaddling a $10 bill. Morris-Smith feels horrible that she hasn't thanked donors - she's been too busy with the garden - but promises she and the children will send out letters soon. Since the accident, she should be resting.
She isn't resting.
The interns stayed until noon, planting lavender, shasta daisies, coreopsis, and yarrow in the sidewalk beds. The children, let out of school to assist, asked to do more. "I get to come here and help Mrs. Smith dig up and grade the soil," said Jasmine Smallwood, 13. As she and her classmates returned to Blaine, Morris-Smith offered high-fives in the garden.
"Green hands," she said. "Green hands."