It’s (almost) growing season in the River Wards

Vo­lun­teers at Little Ber­lin Fair­grounds’ garden, An­gela Mc­Quil­lan, left, and Tyler Kline, cen­ter, work on a raised bed. They were among many res­id­ents in the River Wards work­ing in com­munity gar­dens on Sat­urday, March 23. BRI­AN RADE­MAKERS / STAR PHOTO

On first of­fi­cial week­end of spring, loc­al farm­ers and garden­ers got their hands dirty across the River Wards.

On March 23, on corner lots and in com­munity gar­dens up and down the Delaware, people were fight­ing back against a long, dark winter and head­ing out in­to the sun to get some much needed vit­am­in D — as in dirt.

From York Street to Liberty Lands, res­id­ents were get­ting their knees and hands dirty as the tem­per­at­ures climbed close to the 50s.

Long-nour­ished win­ter­time dreams of raised beds filled with to­ma­toes and pep­pers were fi­nally be­gin­ning to bloom to­ward real­ity as garden­ers in Fishtown, North­ern Liber­ties, Kens­ing­ton and bey­ond cel­eb­rated the first of­fi­cial spring week­end.

The only prob­lem? The fore­cast on Sunday, March 24, called for a winter storm. Snow was in the fore­cast, al­though it didn’t ar­rive.

The Je­kyll and Hyde weath­er wasn’t lost on An­gela Mc­Quil­lan, who was sport­ing a T-shirt has she turned over shovel­fuls of soil in a few beds on York Street just west of Frank­ford Av­en­ue on that sunny Sat­urday.

“We really wanted to sow some seeds today, but then we saw that it was sup­posed to snow,” said Mc­Quil­lan, a mem­ber of the nearby Little Ber­lin Gal­lery and a vo­lun­teer with the col­lect­ive’s com­munity garden pro­ject, dubbed the Little Ber­lin Fair­grounds.

Judging by the ob­ser­va­tions of Nath­an Hasler-Brooks, head farm­er at Greens­grow Farms on Cum­ber­land Street, Mc­Quil­lan’s pa­tience and foresight is a trait not shared by all of her fel­low garden­ers. Of­ten, he said, people fooled by a bout of warm days start plant­ing warm-weath­er crops. While the sun feels warm, the soil tem­per­at­ure is much cool­er than the high tem­per­at­ure of the day.

“You have a few hot days like we did last year, and the soil tem­per­at­ure just isn’t there yet,” said Hasler-Brooks. “Then we got a cold snap, and a lot of people lost plants.”

Des­pite some bru­tal stretches of sub­freez­ing weath­er, he said this winter wasn’t all that bad.

“It was a pretty mild winter,” said Hasler-Brooks. “We didn’t get a whole lot of snow, which can make the ground cold and wet longer than it might be oth­er­wise.”

The low­est soil tem­per­at­ure most plants can bear, he said, is about 45 de­grees. Un­til the ground warms up, most of the garden work should be geared more to­wards pre­par­a­tion than plant­ing.

“You can try to harden plants you star­ted from seed in­doors by put­ting them out­side for a few hours a day and then cov­er­ing up your bed with plastic row cov­ers, and that might give you a chance to sur­vive a cold-snap,” said Hasler-Brooks.  “But, in the end, there’s not a lot you can do to warm up the soil.”

His ad­vice is simple: be pa­tient, grow what you can now, and wait un­til the risk of freez­ing tem­per­at­ures is gone.

The es­tim­ated fi­nal frost date for the Phil­adelphia re­gion is Sat­urday, April 6, and Hasler-Brooks said the safest bet is to wait un­til mid-May to put in warm-weath­er crops.

Over at Em­er­ald Street Urb­an Farm, a sort of hy­brid city farm and com­munity garden space at Dauph­in and Em­er­ald streets cov­er­ing a half acre, vo­lun­teers were hit­ting the soil for their first of­fi­cial work day on March 23. Those week­end work days will con­tin­ue through April, and by May they’ll be ready to open the an­nu­al mar­ket, now in its fifth year, with a not­able dif­fer­ence this sea­son.

“We had been do­ing a farm stand, but the pro­duce that people didn’t take was just get­ting wil­ted, said Em­er­ald Street Urb­an Farm co-founder Elisa Es­posito. “So this year, we are just let­ting people pick ex­actly what they want.”

If you’ve got the grow­ing bug but don’t have a yard, ES­UF also is look­ing for loc­al res­id­ents who’d like to have a garden plot to call their own.

“We have some com­munity plots that we are try­ing to find homes for,” said Es­posito. “If people are in­ter­ested in a com­munity plot, they can come out to a work day and learn about how works through that ex­per­i­ence.”

People can also con­tact her and fill out an ap­plic­a­tion to get a com­munity bed, and pref­er­ence is giv­en to those who live close by.

Mc­Quil­lan said her group is also look­ing for cre­at­ive ideas for what they hope will be a sum­mer full of fun events.

In the gar­dens, they’ll be grow­ing ve­get­ables as well as flowers and herbs. While they’re just en­ter­ing their second grow­ing sea­son, they’ve already trans­formed the space from a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous va­cant lot in­to a green space filled with raised beds, some of which take on a sculp­ture-like form.

“It’s a lot of work keep­ing it clean.” said Tyler Kline, an­oth­er vo­lun­teer and Little Ber­lin mem­ber. “But we’re way over the hump as far as keep­ing it clear of big debris, and hope­fully this spring the garden will really take off.”

Now, all they’ll need is a fore­cast without any snow.

To vo­lun­teer at Em­er­ald Street Urb­an Farm, con­tact Elisa Es­pos­tio at es­ufpro­

To get in­volved at Little Ber­lin, vis­it lit­tle­ber­­grounds.

Head to Greens­grow, 2501 E. Cum­ber­land St., for its Com­munity Garden Day on April 28. For de­tails vis­it: greens­­munity-garden-days.

Re­port­er Bri­an Rademaekers can be reached at

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