by Stacia Friedman
Margaret Lea, 56, a teacher at Penn Charter and freelance pianist, loved growing organic vegetables in the community garden known as the Old Tennis Court Farm.
“I helped lead community outreach at the garden. I enjoyed helping new and inexperienced gardeners manage their plots,” said Lea. “We also maintained eight plots for growing vegetables that we donated to agencies that support underserved and food-insecure communities. We took between 35 and 75 pounds of fresh organic vegetables per week to the Whosoever Gospel Mission and to SHARE. We also brought vegetables to shut-ins and seniors in the neighborhood with limited mobility or obvious need.”
Located on Wissahickon Avenue between Schoolhouse Lane and Midvale Avenue in Germantown, adjacent to Cloverly Park, the community garden was established in 2009 on land owned by Germantown Friends School, on what had formerly been the school’s tennis courts, unused since the 1980s. The gardeners dug into their own pockets to remove the asphalt tennis courts, dig a well, bring in compost and topsoil and install solar panels. They built raised beds, planted fruit trees and kept bees.
“What was most striking about the Old Tennis Court Farm was the diversity of the gardeners, many of whom came from a seven-block radius that included West Germantown and East Falls,” said Mark Kearney, 62, who maintained two plots.
“It wasn’t a garden for one particular group. You worked side by side with people you might not otherwise meet, and we discovered that we had a lot more in common than might appear from our demographics and that we cared about a lot of the same things.
“For six years the Old Tennis Court Farm thrived as a place for Germantown neighbors of all ages, races, genders and financial status to work and learn together as they grew fresh organic fruits and vegetables for their own tables and those of family, friends, neighbors and local food security programs.”
There are also gardeners from Chestnut Hill, Mt Airy and even Center City and South Philly. “In addition to the benefits of giving back to the community and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, the garden preserved green space,” said Lea who has lived in Germantown since the early 1980s. “We have a responsibility to do everything we can to combat the degradation of the environment and reduce our carbon footprint.”
The Old Tennis Court Farm was carbon-use negative. All of the major tools were solar-powered, and the water came from a solar-powered well. They composted all of the waste and had plans for even more community outreach, including workshops for schools.
However, this summer, the 50 garden plots, each measuring 12 by 12 feet, have remained dormant. No one is harvesting produce or delivering it to the needy. No one is teaching new gardeners. In October of 2015, the garden was closed when GFS decided to sell the land.
Initially the purchase price, $250,000, with another $27,000 in related costs, seemed far beyond the community’s reach, but a dedicated core of community members recently rallied to try to save the garden.
“We were very concerned about what might take the garden’s place,” said Kearney, who also leads the Friends of Cloverly Park. Like Cloverly Park, the land the garden used was once part of Edward White Clark’s grand estate, which was subdivided early in the last century. “Part of the estate became Cloverly Park, another became the GFS athletic facility. The former GFS playing fields next to the garden area was sold decades ago and paved over for use as a parking lot.”
Friends of Cloverly Park contacted the Natural Lands Trust, which agreed to partner with them to try to purchase the land and return it to the community forever as productive green space. “If the fundraising is successful, the land would be donated to the city as part of Cloverly Park, and the farm would affiliate with the Neighborhood Gardens Trust,” said Kearney.
In mid-June, GFS agreed to give the community a chance to buy the garden through Natural Lands Trust, which is pursuing public funds for a portion of the purchase price. With an October deadline, the gardeners are trying to get the word out to raise the rest.
“We’re calling it the Old Tennis Court Farm Protection Project,” said Kearney. “We want to get the garden back into the hands of the community and back into operation.”
“As green space forever,” added Lea.
You can make a tax-deductible donation toward the purchase through Germantown United CDC, which is serving as the project’s fiscal sponsor: www.germantownunitedcdc.org or visit www.friendsofcloverlypark.org.