Philly garden activists are shipping millions of seeds to a nation fretting over food access during coronavirus pandemic


One afternoon last week, at a table in the back of West Philadelphia’s Making Worlds bookstore, Kate Illes shook aji pepper seeds into hand-labeled envelopes. In a comfortable chair near a section on prisons and oppression, Nathan Kleinman bundled Brussels sprout seeds. And, over by the front desk, Trika Parasimo meted out melon seeds.

This makeshift assembly line is the nationwide hub of the Cooperative Gardens Commission. Inconspicuous though it may be, it’s the epicenter of a new food gardening movement born from this moment of scarcity – as Americans have seen grocery store shelves stripped bare by panic buying and viral photos of zucchini rotting in the field for want of distribution channels – and as millions of unemployed are suddenly staring down abundant free time, looming food insecurity, and a deep craving to be outdoors.

This is a victory-garden movement improved by technology: with biweekly conference calls drawing participants from across the country; collaboratively developed Google Docs with gardening safety guidelines; a proliferation of webinars and Zoom classes; a hashtag, #coopgardens, that people can use to offer or request resources; and a hotline, 202-709-6225, to connect novice gardeners to mentors local to their bioregions.

“We know from the history of war gardens that after World War II, a lot of people who took up gardening didn’t continue, and a lot of people who tried to grow food for themselves failed,” Kleinman said. “The broader vision of the group is to facilitate resource-sharing and knowledge-sharing so that anyone who wants to grow food this year can.”

But this green rush is also facing unprecedented barriers – as many who garden at schools and nonprofit-run farms are being locked out or asked to stay home, crucial resources such as the Fairmount Park organic recycling center are closed, and some garden centers were denied waivers to stay open as essential businesses. Above all, gardeners said, access to seeds has been a challenge, as companies are back-ordered – struggling to meet increased demand with reduced staffing as spring weather bears down.

The Cooperative Gardens Commission is addressing that seed shortage, taking in millions of heirloom and organic seeds donated in bulk by companies from Maine to Oregon, packing them into envelopes, and shipping them to more than 100 regional distributors to share with local farmers.

It’s time-sensitive work, said Kleinman, who also contributed seeds from his Elmer, N.J.-based nonprofit, the Experimental Farm Network. “The priority is to get stuff first to people in southerly areas, because they really need to get seeds in the ground quicker. Then, mainly, we’re prioritizing by need – places where food insecurity was a problem before the pandemic.” By mid-May, everything must go.

Across the gardening community, there is a through-line of urgency, hampered by uncertainty about what’s safe and what’s legal.

Two weeks ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture issued guidance affirming that urban farms are essential and instructing them on how to operate safely, wearing masks and staggering work shifts. And Philadelphia’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative has sent around a letter template affirming that gardeners are essential workers.

Even so, many elderly gardeners who anchored longstanding Philadelphia gardens feel unsafe venturing out this year, said Jennifer Greenberg of the Neighborhood Gardens Trust. “We’re starting to think about how to work with volunteers to provide additional help to those gardeners, so that we can make sure there are crops growing and they’re still able to get the food they’re going to need.”

Further complicating matters is that some garden centers were denied waivers to reopen as essential businesses, leaving them to operate limited delivery services in a legal gray area.

That happened to Primex in Glenside, even though it sells essential farming supplies such as vegetables, seeds, and chicken feed.

Owner David Green said he has since started doing deliveries – but his first venture into ecommerce, using email ordering, has been maddeningly inefficient and backlogged. This should be his peak season, but his daily sales are about 20% of last year’s. He recently canceled an order for a truckload of vegetable starts, worried he wouldn’t be able to move them. Primex sells raised-bed kits from a company that has seen demand spike 500% since the pandemic – but marketing them to his customers right now seems impossible.

Despite all the obstacles, everyone counting out seeds was holding on to some vision of a lush green patch of relief this summer.

Illes said she’s breaking ground on a garden on two vacant lots in West Philadelphia, clearing trash and sourcing wood from Philly Reclaim for raised beds. Her most pressing concern is petitioning the city to restore access to the public compost pile in Fairmount Park so she and others will have dirt to grow in.

Parasimo, who works at a community farm in North Philadelphia, has been improvising since the nonprofit that runs the farm sent all workers and volunteers home and gave away most of its plant starts. “I’m kind of guerrilla planting instead,” he said, trying to keep that farm growing on a modified scale – though the fate of the farm stand, which in past years accepted food stamps and set prices at half those of Whole Foods, is uncertain. Parasimo is also working to start as many pop-up food gardens in the city as he can.

They are among thousands of gardeners recommitting to growing food, according to Sally McCabe of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. “People are worried about what’s going to happen: whether food is going to get harder to get, and whether garden supplies are going to get harder to get.”

If they can get the resources and education they need, she believes, a new generation of gardeners will be born.

PHS is doing its part. Its City Harvest program, which works with 129 gardens to provide thousands of tons of fresh produce each year to soup kitchens, food banks and low-cost farm stands, is up and running.

While PHS suspended plans to launch a garden-tool library because of the virus, it’s been filming web series on organic gardening for beginners, and gardening with kids. Some classes have drawn thousands of participants. “People are hungry for this stuff,” McCabe said.

They are learning that although this may not be the easiest time to start a garden, there is plenty of help.

Sonya Harris, who started the Bullock Garden Project while she was a special education teacher in Glassboro, said some gardeners she works with have been locked out of the schoolyards they were working in Philadelphia’s Kensington section and in Elizabeth, N.J.

It will not stop Harris, who’s on a mission to prove that food can grow anywhere. Her own kitchen window is a test case: from takeout containers and dollar-store topsoil, she’s sprouting rosemary, string beans– peas, cherry tomatoes, carrots, barley, rye. For kids displaced from their school gardens, she has mailed out seed packets and is running Zoom gardening classes to teach container gardening at home.

Harris said the message is simple: “You and your family can sustain yourself. We can teach you how to do it. We’re giving advice and seeds and seedlings and plants. I’m growing extra in my garden this year because there may be someone who is going to need that food.”

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