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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get involved at Little Berlin, visit littleberlin.org/fairgrounds.
Head to Greensgrow, 2501 E. Cumberland St., for its Community Garden Day on April 28. For details visit: greensgrow.org/event/community-garden-days.
Reporter Brian Rademaekers can be reached at email@example.com.