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A Marine vet returns to Mount Airy to grow a garden — and winds up growing a community

Through his Pleasant Playground Garden Committee, Joe Johnson has brought both gardening and a renewed community spirit to this East Mount Airy area neighborhood.

Joe Johnson checks on one of the beds at the community garden in Pleasant Playground.
Joe Johnson checks on one of the beds at the community garden in Pleasant Playground.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Joe Johnson fell in love with neighborhood parks in 1983, when he moved with his family from West Oak Lane to Mount Airy at the age of 14. He spent many happy hours playing sports at Pleasant Playground at 6757 Chew Ave., whose grounds and facilities are owned by Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

There, he was especially taken by the work of John Seawright, director of Pleasant’s rec center.

“I became inspired by the work he was doing in the community, how he impacted the youngsters,” recalled Johnson, 51.

He was so impressed that, when he enrolled at Temple University, he majored in parks-and-recreation management with a possible goal of one day working in a public facility the way Seawright did. But Johnson also felt called to military service and wound up leaving Temple after two years to enlist in the Marines.

He retired after 23 years of service and wanted to reinvent himself. He’d always been fascinated by gardening, so in 2015 he attended a two-week permaculture course and then began a six-month organic farming apprenticeship. At the time, he was living in New Orleans but planned to return to Philadelphia and live in the childhood home where he’d been raised.

Slowly, he said, “I started to envision bringing a community garden to Pleasant Playground. I felt it was a way to give back to my roots, so to speak.”

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When he moved back to Philly in December of 2016, he founded a group called the Pleasant Playground Garden Committee to strategize with others about how to create a nonprofit community garden on an empty corner of Pleasant’s 4.8-acre grounds.

Its mission statement: “To increase access to healthy food, provide educational opportunities to learn organic food production, promote physical activity and health, and create shared green space for neighbors who commune, connect with the environment and share their garden story.”

After a few fits and starts, the project found serious traction in January 2019, thanks to a few GoFundMe campaigns that have since raised $12,600 toward the $20,000 needed to create 50 raised beds available for rent by community members at an annual fee of $25.

To date, 46 beds have been constructed, 29 of which are being utilized. They range in size from 4-by-4 feet to 6-by-8. The final four lots will be built high enough to accommodate wheelchair users, who will be able to roll up to the beds as they would to a table.

By last August, Pleasant gardeners had harvested spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, green peppers, hot peppers, and tomatoes, to name just some of the bounty that the beds have produced.

But the project has yielded something more than produce, said gardener Bonnie Zuckerman, 29, who is also one of the garden’s volunteer site managers.

“This has been a good way to meet new neighbors,” said Zuckerman, who moved to Mount Airy in 2017 and has made lovely friendships at Pleasant — at least 30 so far. “It brings a spirit to the neighborhood as Pleasant Playground is such a hub.”

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Her words are profoundly moving to Johnson, who is thankful that his military pension allows him to devote so much of his retirement time to this project. (He also recently earned a degree in dietetics and nutrition from La Salle University.)

It’s a thrill, “to see community members have access to something like this,” said Johnson, who has five children and two grandchildren and lives about two blocks from the garden. For about a half-dozen of the 29 members who have signed up for a plot, he said, this was their first time ever attempting to grow food. “To see them plant seeds and see the joy in their face — ‘Oh, look, I grew some spinach!’ — that is what I get great satisfaction from. For me, it’s empowering.”