Dr. Allison Chan.

by Len Lear

Chris Mattingly and his wife, Allison, are two Chestnut Hillers who are affected by the coronavirus pandemic in radically different ways.

“As the husband of an intrepid emergency medicine doctor,” said Chris, 34, last week, “my wife and many of our closest friends are on the frontlines in Philly.”

Dr Allison Chan works out of the York, Lancaster and Lititz hospitals with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center system. She specializes in both emergency medicine and hospice and palliative care.

She said last week that there are positive coronavirus cases in her hospital system, but she could not provide details since she is currently on maternity leave. (The couple already has three sons 4 and under.) However, she has been making mask covers and cloth masks with her sewing machine and shipping them to her colleagues across the country.

“My crew will also be wearing her cloth masks while they do their work,” said Chris, a licensed civil engineer, last week. Chris founded a company in the spring of 2016, Backyard Eats, that creates gardens for many Hill area residents. Chris turned a love of growing his own food into a business helping other people do the same thing. His company specializes in designing and maintaining gardens geared towards growing fruits and vegetables.

Backyard Eats, formerly housed in the garage at the couple’s house on Ardleigh Street at Gravers Lane, is now housed in a garage/workshop on Germantown Avenue, just off Gowen Avenue in Mt. Airy.

“When the Pennsylvania policies were announced,” said Chris, “I wasn’t sure if we should continue our work because I couldn’t bear the prospect of making this crisis worse by a single additional case. But with more research and clarification from Gov. Wolf, I decided we likely fell within the intent of the order to continue our work. I was encouraged by the fact that our gardeners typically work alone, and our clients can easily keep their distance.”

Whereas almost every business has either closed or laid off people, Mattingly has actually hired another carpenter/gardener, bringing his field team to three, and has hired a specialist to work with garden design and installation, as well as drafting annual planting plans for their clients.

Chris Mattingly

“We’ve had some calls from existing clients anxious to get their gardens planted,” said Chris, “and had some new clients who wanted to start gardening, even though they never thought twice about it before the crisis. “We count ourselves very lucky to be in this business in the first place, but with this crisis, our hearts go out to those who can’t continue working through it, and we thank them for their sacrifice to keep us and our friends and family healthy and to protect healthcare workers the best they can.

“Many have told me I’m lucky to have apocalypse-ready skills, and clients must be glad they won’t have to rely on our food system for their nutrition. But while I’ve had mini-freak outs about empty shelves and did start buying a little extra at the grocery store to build a small reserve, it must be said that there’s no large-scale food shortage, even if there are supply chain disruptions and certain items we might not see for a while.”

Chris is not gardening for survival or to replace his grocery bill, but he is getting “a sense of empowerment, the joy that comes with learning a new skill, a productive and physical hobby, changes in diet toward the fresh and nutritious, space for quiet reflection and a glimpse into the miracles and wonder of mother nature.”

As a design engineer and registered professional civil engineer with a focus on soil and environmental engineering, Chris delights in the interactions in a garden between soil particles, insects, plants, building materials, the sun, wind and rain. “As a designer, I enjoy finding the combination of all those things that make them work in harmony and to mutual benefit.”

Chris completed training as a Master Gardener through the Penn State Agricultural Extension and the Philadelphia Orchard Project’s “urban orchardist” training. He has also worked with teachers and students at the Jenks Academy of the Arts and Sciences in Chestnut Hill to teach about the raised bed gardens that he designed and built.

Backyard Eats currently serves 40 residential clients, mostly in Chestnut Hill, Wyndmoor, Mt. Airy and Ambler. For most clients they perform “full-service food gardening,” which includes planting plans, bespoke seeds and plants from their nursery in Mt. Airy.

Lucy Curtis contributed to this article. More information: backyard-eats.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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