Flourishing Penn Garden cultivates sustainability and social issues

The students who first planted the urban garden on the west side of Rodin College House in 2009 have graduated, but their garden hasn’t gone to seed. It’s flourishing and cultivating conversations about sustainability and social issues related to food, access, and inclusion.

Located just off Locust Walk, the Penn Garden is maintained by a core group of students and staff at the University: Sarah McFarlane, a Residential Services building administrator; Rebecca Sokol, the sustainability coordinator in Facilities and Real Estate Services; summer garden intern Mizane Johnson-Bowman; Residential Services staffers Becky Shasha, Dionicia Roberson, and Rebecca Golpe; and additional staff and students. Every Friday from 3 to 5 p.m., they meet at the site to work the soil and tend the blossoming plants. An automated watering system of hoses hydrates the garden during the week.

On June 10, the group held the first of a series of monthly events planned to bring people to the garden. About 40 volunteers came to “Adopt-a-Plant,” selecting plants and painting colorful signs to stake their claim to sections of wooden beds built in the garden. 

“For me, gardening is really about becoming a steward of the land,” says McFarlane. “When you begin to interact directly with soil, and begin the tedious, magical, disheartening, and completely mind-blowing experience of coaxing food from the earth, it becomes harder to tolerate disrespect for it.”

Passersby can be observed approaching the garden to get a whiff of a huge perennial lemon balm bush and pinch off pieces of it. Planted two seasons ago, the bush now takes up half of one garden bed. Potatoes that sprouted in the spring take up the other half of the bed and fill another bed completely.

Vegetables that have just started to sprout include arugula, eggplant, hot peppers, Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, beets, scarlet runner beans, and tomatoes. The gardeners erected a fortress of chicken wire that they hope will shield the tomato plants from hungry squirrels. In the spring, the resourceful rodents helped themselves to lettuce, kale, and cucumber plants.

In addition to the lemon balm, other herbs have taken root in the garden, including mint, rosemary, sage, oregano, basil, parsley, and cilantro. Bright and colorful zinnia, calendula, and marigolds have made an appearance. When students return to campus, they’ll plant cool-weather crops such as winter squash, cabbage, spinach, and kale.

Volunteers actively involved in the Penn Garden will decide how to use yields. They’ll cook and eat some of what they harvest and donate a portion of the rest.

On Friday, July 22, a “Peaches and Poetry” open mic will take place in the garden from 5 to 8 p.m. It will feature garden-themed poetry and music, fresh peaches, and homemade peach cobbler sourced from a local farmer.

For more information about the Penn Garden and upcoming events, visit the Penn Garden Facebook page and Instagram account, or email garden@pobox.upenn.edu to be added to the garden mailing list.

Penn Garden