If you’ve felt the spray of the fountain at Logan Circle, enjoyed the flora and fragrances of the city’s many community gardens or attended the annual Philadelphia Flower Show, then you’re already familiar with the groundbreaking work of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
Founded in 1827, this fertile organization of plant enthusiasts began with an original membership of just 80 farmers, botanists and gardening experts and has since grown to a current roster of 27,000 members. Though PHS offers horticultural outreach from Atlantic City to Pittsburgh, the majority of its work takes place right here in the City of Brotherly Love.
PHS digs into several aspects of greening citywide, affecting everyone from the residents of ritzy Society Hill to the inmates of the Philadelphia prison system. “We help our neighbors green and improve their communities through horticulture,” says Julianne Schrader Ortega, chief of programs at PHS.
One popular PHS program, Tree Tenders, trains volunteers throughout the Greater Philadelphia region to plant, care for and maintain trees. “We show them how to choose the right trees for their neighborhood, which is so important in this time of climate change,” says PHS director of communications Alan Jaffe. So far, PHS has trained more than 4,000 Tree Tenders, who collectively plant roughly 2,000 trees each year.
Tree Tenders is an integral part of the Plant One Million initiative, which aims to restore the local tree canopy to 30 percent. The organization sowed its 500,000th tree in 2015 in conjunction with Pope Francis’ historic Philadelphia visit.
Green thumbs interested in flowers and produce can opt to participate in Garden Tenders, which empowers residents to build and maintain community gardens. “When visitors go off the beaten path, they see that this is really a city of community gardens,” says Lisa Stephano, vice president and chief marketing officer at PHS. In fact, Philadelphia pioneered the community gardening concept in the 1970s. Explains Stephano, “It all came from the idea of taking vacant land and using it to grow vegetables and serve as a gathering spot for the neighborhood.”
Out of community gardening grew City Harvest, a PHS initiative to distribute fresh, organic produce to Philadelphians most in need. “One in five of our neighbors is food insecure,” explains Ortega. Through City Harvest, communities donate part of their haul to nearby food cupboards.
One such garden is located in an unlikely place: a minimum-security Philadelphia prison. In an on-site greenhouse, which PHS helped renovate, prisoners cultivate seedlings for use by other community gardens. Inmates who sprout an interest in agriculture can opt to join the Roots to Reentry program, which offers vocational training in horticulture-related fields. Participants receive the education they need to excel in green-related jobs upon their release. “Roots to Reentry is a way to build meaningful skills and provide a means for the people who need it the most to connect with what’s green and healthy,” says Stephano.
The highest profile and most lucrative PHS fundraiser is the Philadelphia Flower Show. This nine-day celebration of buds and blooms began in 1829, making it the oldest horticultural event in the United States. “Gardening changes and reflects people’s tastes. The Flower Show has been able to change and adapt, too,” says Stephano.
Each year, just when it seems like winter will never end, the exhibit halls at the Pennsylvania Convention Center swell with large-scale artistic displays, an extensive garden marketplace, special events, classes, demonstrations and galas. A record 250,000 people attended in 2015.
The 2016 PHS Philadelphia Flower Show celebrated the centennial of the National Park Service and highlighted our country’s majestic landscapes, rich history and vibrant culture.
“The National Park Service and PHS share a commitment to introduce new generations to the beauty of nature, to be good stewards of our environment, to honor the contributions of individuals to our history, and to build vibrant communities,” says Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park.
When spring arrives, Philadelphians anxiously await the opening of the PHS Pop Up Gardens. Where most people see abandoned lots, PHS recognizes potential. Each year since 2011, the organization has converted vacant eyesores into vibrant, temporary parks, complete with fare from renowned culinary talents, beer on tap, lawn games, live performances, yoga classes, workshops and more. “It’s a great way to get new audiences, particularly the millennial crowd, involved in PHS in various ways,” says Jaffe. “We love that we are bringing new nightlife to the warm weather months in the city.”
PHS Pop-Up Gardens close at the end of the season, but their effects are lasting. Through the Philadelphia Land Care Program, PHS helps reclaim these sites and many others like them. “When you’re driving around the city and you see a rubble-strewn lot, it’s a source of trouble for the neighbors,” says Ortega. “We work to clean, green and stabilize lots to return them to productive uses in the community.”
With funding from the City of Philadelphia and additional outside sources, PHS has transformed more than 7,000 parcels of land, many of which were formerly headquarters for drugs and illicit activities, into positive community hubs.
“The City’s partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society enhances health and safety in addition to creating jobs and increasing property values,” says former Philadelphia mayor Michael A. Nutter.
According to a 2011 University of Pennsylvania study, the greening of vacant urban land is linked to significant reductions in gun assaults and vandalism. “We give the lots a basic overhaul, but the impact on the community is much bigger,” explains Ortega.
On a macro scale, PHS affects city initiatives ranging from the redesign of Logan Circle to maintaining the magnificent azalea garden behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“We are about to approach the next wave of urban landscapes and are looking at how we can improve the gateways to the city,” says Jaffe. In 2016, a PHS Pop Up Garden along the Reading Viaduct will help promote the future Viaduct Rail Park, a 25,000-square-foot elevated park set to break ground later this year.