City garden pops up

Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s garden brought a vibrant green space to Center City. June of this year, as the ground was warming and flowers blooming, a garden popped up in an empty lot in Center City.

NICHOLAS DEROOSE TTN Drew Becher, president of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, speaks at the garden’s closing day on Oct. 24. The garden is closing for the winter.

Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s garden brought a vibrant green space to Center City.

June of this year, as the ground was warming and flowers blooming, a garden popped up in an empty lot in Center City. Through the end of October, the once vacant lot was occupied by the freshly erected green space, and a refreshingly colorful addition to the surrounding bleak, urban landscape.

The empty lot at the nearly-always-busy 20th and Market streets intersection began to serve a number of purposes for visitors, residents and simple passerbys alike.

From the offices of the skyscrapers that tower above the corner’s south and west sides, to the benches scattered throughout it and from the sidewalks that surround it, the garden served aesthetic, entertainment and beautification purposes from multiple vantage points.

Carol Estronell works on the 10th floor at 2 Commerce Square, just west of the garden on Market Street. Estronell frequented the garden throughout the season.

“This was my first real summer of gardening, and I came here and got tips from the volunteers,” Estronell said. “[The garden] has brought me so much joy.”

But the flowers, herbs and vegetables that took root there had a little assistance– the project was organized by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society.

“It’s satisfying to know how successful it’s been, the idea that even people who never came into the site enjoyed it walking by,” said Mark Ronus, a PHS landscape architect who worked on the garden. “A lot of it goes unseen or unheard of, just the effect that it had on people.”

Partnered with Baldev Lamba,  principal at Lamba Associates and an associate landscape architecture professor at Ambler Campus, PHS cultivated the lot and maintained the space. The exhibit was structured around Temple’s display at the 2011 Philadelphia Flower Show, “Écolibrium,” last March.

Lamba said he addressed several challenges in finalizing the garden’s design, like where to put and how to shape the entrance, dealing with an abundance of wind and limited sunlight were all  factors.

“The site was a very hostile environment –it was totally blocked off and felt like a foreboding kind of place that nobody wanted you to see,” Lamba said. “It wasn’t adding any kind of visual, experiential element to the people walking around the site, and there’s a lot of people that walk by this.”

Lamba said that he, along with 25 or 30 other people from PHS, brainstormed and created a set of objectives for the garden. Beyond these initiatives, the garden was centered around the design elements of “Écolibrium.” The art of Piet Mondrian, which provided the basis for the initial flower show exhibit, was reflected as a unifying concept throughout the garden.

“When you look at the layout you see these abstract shapes that are arranged in an asymmetrical fashion that create a sense of unity for the whole composition,” Baldev said. “There are different scales in the experience but it has an overall theme that ties it all together. The ‘Écolibrium’ exhibit is balanced but not symmetrical.”

Using a 4-by-4-foot grid, the garden incorporated a section dedicated to food crops on its east side, and an herb garden along the west side bordering 20th Street, with the “Écolibrium” exhibit between the two. A strip of larger trees through the center of the three-quarter-acre lot acted as a wind barrier. Lamba described the back, north side of the lot as “more agricultural, less cultivated section of urban meadows.” This area most reflected Mondrian’s work, with large patches of bright colors.

The garden and the produce harvested there was a testament to the benefits of local farming in an urban area. Several nearby eateries including R2L, Table 31, Sampan, Barbuzzo and Paradiso used ingredients from the garden in their dishes. The proceeds from these menu items benefited City Harvest, a PHS program that provides families throughout the city with fresh, locally grown foods.

The pop-up plants were meant as a temporary project, and the garden closed its gates for the winter last Monday. The aim to complete a temporary project and repurpose its components was among PHS’s initial design goals.

“Everything is dedicated to go somewhere, and be re-used, but it’s sad that it’s going to go away,” Ronus said.

He said the Temple exhibit is headed to Meadowbrook Farms to serve as a kiosk. The planter beds will be taken apart and reused at other community garden sites throughout the city. The plants are being donated to other PHS partners in the city’s Parks and Recreation system.

PHS hosted two other pop-up sites during the summer months. At its headquarters on 20th Street a tropical exhibit greened the block, and will be expanded on in the 2012 Hawaiian-themed Philadelphia Flower Show.

The other pop-up project planted carousel animal-shaped bushes featured in last year’s flower show along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at Logan Square.

When asked about the chance of another PHS garden popping up next spring, Ronus said prospects are  promising.

“Something will happen next spring, we haven’t decided on a site or genre yet, what it will look like, but we plan to bring it back in another form,” Ronus said.

“I’m not sure if it’ll be the same, it might be something else–I’m pretty sure it’ll be something else,” he added. “Who knows, it might be a roof garden, it could be anything so keep an eye out.”

At the garden’s closing ceremonies, those who contributed to it including sponsors, PHS members and partnering restaurants among the visitors who frequented it, enjoyed one last, sunny day in the pop-up plot.

“This was a one-of-a-kind experimentation,” Lamba said. “Being an academic and a professional, these opportunities are ways of just pushing the envelope.”

“The challenge was to create something that was interesting and exciting and bring attention to all the work PHS does and bring them visibility,” Lamba added. “I think it has done that.”

Kara Savidge can be reached at

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