by Len Lear
No one in his/her right mind would ever say that Mt. Airy is “out in the country,” but if you stroll into Anna Herman’s backyard on a residential street in Mt. Airy, you just might think you are way out Lancaster Pike in Chester County or even farther out in Lancaster County.
Although the backyard is only about one-third of an acre, every single inch is filled with vegetable plants and fruit trees.
Forget going to the supermarket. In the warm weather “growing” months, there are veggies sprouting such as tomatoes, beans, collard greens, kale, leeks, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and almost every kind of herb you can think of.
Not to be outdone are the fruit trees and vines — fig, nectarine, pear, apple, blueberry and strawberry and maybe even some I missed.
And what “farm” would be complete without ducks and egg-laying chickens? Definitely not this one. And of course, there is the dog who does lay eggs but who makes sure the fowl do not misbehave.
And the “farmer” who keeps everything growing is Anna Herman, 55, who grew up in Wynnefield, moved to Lower Merion when she was in 7th grade, went to the University of Pennsylvania (majoring in the biological basis of behavior), moved to New York City and moved to Mt. Airy in 1994.
Herman’s mother’s “green” philosophy shaped her as surely as a cookie cutter shapes a mound of dough. “My mom always had a garden,” she said, “and my sisters and I had our own garden patch when we were little.
“I was always interested in food, cooking, food systems, etc. I worked as a cook, chef and restaurant consultant. I traveled in California and Europe and came to realize that quality ingredients from quality farms were key to good food.
“I also realized that the environmental impact of commercial food production was shameful, so I become an advocate for organic and sustainable food over 35 years ago.”
It is no surprise, then, that Herman has been the coordinator of the Penn State Extension Master Gardener program for about four years.
The classes are taught by a range of educators and experts from both the Penn State School of Agriculture, the Penn State Extension educator system and other local Delaware Valley experts. Herman teaches only some of the classes, both adults and youth.
Herman also creates and oversees volunteer opportunities for over 120 gardeners in projects around the city, manages the program budget and other resources and has built and maintains relationships with many citywide organizations. And somehow she has managed to find the time to be the volunteer coordinator of the Morris Arboretum Community Garden for over 20 years. She works closely with the Chestnut Hill Community Association staff, Morris Arboretum staff and the 88 garden members to ensure smooth operations of this 108-plot organic garden. Herman has also written and contributed to many newspapers and newsletters promotional and informational pieces for a variety of food businesses and schools. She has done freelance work developing, testing and writing recipes for Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine Magazine.
But why is urban gardening important? “Home grown food is delicious, fresh, doesn’t need to be trucked in and gets you outdoors,” said Herman. “Gardening sustainably is good for the environment, and young people learn where food comes from and general environmental lessons, e.g., when you are growing food, you will learn about soil science, plant life cycles, insects and overall eco-system relationships. Participating in the cycle of growing food is a great connector to the seasonal cycles.
“And it is fun to walk through the garden to decide what’s for dinner. Even a window box can have fresh herbs. Flower gardens beautify a neighborhood, and native plants provide ecosystem services to insects, who feed birds and the local food web.”
Herman also makes her own soap as well as a range of herb products – a line she calls “Backyard Botanicals,” which have homegrown and wildcrafted ingredients — bitters, tinctures and tonics — for gift giving, occasional sales, etc. She also make salves, creams and balms from various herbs and flowers and beeswax.
She has been raising chickens for 12 years for the eggs, ducks for about five years for eggs and amusement and bees for eight years for honey and wax and propolis (for use in tinctures and tonics).
“Hundreds of folks in Philadelphia have backyard chickens,” she said, “and backyard and community garden apiaries. All animals require care and feeding and can pose problems if they are not cared for well (barking dogs, dog poop etc.).
“Chickens and ducks do make a bit of noise; chickens cluck and ducks quack, which could perhaps be annoying to near neighbors. And you do want to make sure to be scrupulous with coop cleaning in proximity to neighbors.”
In the wintertime Anna uses an electric water tank that keeps the water from freezing, and Anna adds extra straw inside and around the coop for insulation. She also chooses breeds of chickens that are fairly hearty. And the ducks all cuddle closer together in the coop overnight on cold nights.
And just in case all of this does not keep Herman busy enough, she has a workshop in her basement where she makes fused glass art projects and mosaics – sometimes jewelry, sometimes art, sometimes decorative drawer pulls or ornaments. But despite all of this multi-tasking, Anna wishes she “had more discipline and more patience.”
What are the pros and cons, if any, of living in Mt. Airy for Herman?
“Mt. Airy is a great neighborhood close to the Wissahickon woods for walking with lots of tree coverage and a range of types of housing, diverse socio-economic (makeup), good public transportation, great neighbors, Weavers Way Co-op and High Point Cafe. I can’t really think of any cons. I love it here.”