The Greening of Wilmington

Urban farming is sprouting all over the city, and fresh produce isn’t the only way in which citizens are benefitting

Thanks to several large organizations and a growing number of resourceful residents, urban gardening and agriculture in Wilmington is becoming a fruitful endeavor. What’s more, the movement can be transformative for the entire community.

“Urban farms have been a proven factor in bringing the crime rate down,” says Mayor Dennis Williams, who values the opportunity the gardens bring to city youth.

“You have young people who want to grow food, it keeps their time occupied. And you have adults that are helping them in the neighborhood. And then there’s relationships being built between the young folks, the middle aged folks and the baby boomers.”

According to Ann Mattingly, director of programs for the Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH), a seminal moment for community gardening occurred on March 20, 2009. That’s when Michelle Obama, who had no previous gardening experience, planted perhaps the largest garden in the history of First Ladies.

“When she planted the garden on the White House lawn, our phones started ringing off the hook,” says Mattingly. “And this has been traditional with community gardens throughout history: they wax and they wane. Hopefully, they’re here to stay.”

The Players

Scratch the surface of agriculture in Wilmington and you’ll soon uncover the Urban Farm and Food Coalition, a result of the grassroots efforts of government, community, non-profits and local farming interests. In 2009, the coalition created the city’s first official urban farm in the area at 12th and Brandywine in the 11th Street Bridge neighborhood. It is the quintessential community garden—a paragon of sustainability and community interaction, the perfect merging of capitalist and socialist ideals where kids are side by side with volunteers tending an endless variety of produce that is brought to market, on premises, weekday mornings before noon.

Adrienne Spencer stewards the farm for the DCH. As the manager, she sees to the planning of the farm’s needs. She downplays her work, insisting on the more important role of the community.

“Last year 90 percent of my assistance came from volunteers,” she says. “This year we don’t have a bonafide assistant farmer, but I have a number of very devoted volunteers.”
At a moment’s notice, Spencer can call on about a half dozen people for help, but it’s primarily the community that is responsible for maintaining the beds and planters.

Then the produce—green beans being the most popular (“I could sell green beans every day all day,” Spencer says) —is sold or donated to people who come to the garden market.

Rodney Reservoir

While the 12th and Brandywine garden’s age makes it arguably the most notable, it is not the city’s largest community garden. That distinction belongs to the Cool Springs neighborhood, where two years after 12th and Brandywine’s debut, the Rodney Reservoir Garden came into existence, at the corner of 10th and Clayton streets on vacant land owned by the Department of Public Works.

In 2013, Rodney Reservoir Garden organizers teamed with Bright Spot Ventures, a product of West End Neighborhood House and Barclays US, to provide job training to youth aging out of the foster care system. Two dozen additional beds followed, two-thirds of which were intended for the Bright Spot Youth to cultivate, harvest and bring to the Thursday pop-up farmers’ market at the foot of the reservoir.

Now, with more than 5,000 square feet of planting space for 50-plus families, the garden stands as a foundation for community building efforts on the city’s West Side.

Bright Spot Farm

Bright Spot Ventures hasn’t so much spun off from its role with West End and Rodney Reservoir as it has fully embraced it. Through a partnership with the state Department of Health and Social Services, Bright Spot now has a half acre of land and a greenhouse where it starts plants for 15 other community gardens in the city.

The group also has a refrigerated box truck that can transform easily into a market with stalls—a mobile market that can rapidly deploy to any area in need of produce. They also have an on-site refrigeration unit that sits just yards away from the growing area, ensuring that the freshest produce possible can make it to the city’s markets.

Ally Schonfeld, Bright Spot farm manager and education supervisor for Ventures, is leading a team of kids who are partly responsible for the starter plants, and the greenhouse is fast running out of room. Schonfeld says she is constantly on the lookout for the “light bulb” moment of understanding after her kids are immersed in their horticulture lessons, learning where food comes from and how it grows.

“It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to happen, but it’s as if the world has opened up to that person,” she says.

One of those people, Kea Mathis, had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. And while she may not exactly want to follow her time at Bright Spot with a horticulture and ag career, she feels she has a future filled with possibilities instead of roadblocks.

“You come here,” she says, “you get the work experience, you get certified for things and you can take that somewhere else to get a better job.”

“Our focus is teaching [the youth] job skills through agriculture,” says Mike McCafferty, Bright Spot Ventures founder and program manager.

The kids go through nearly nine months of soft-skill and industry training approved by industry experts. They perform a variety of agriculture work throughout the season to grow plants, then take the produce to a number of markets in and just outside of the city.

Two-month paid internships with business partners follow. These can result in offers of employment in the nursery industry and elsewhere.

“I got kids that want to be hair stylists or work at Foot Locker, but if you asked me what we teach best, it’s a work ethic,” says McCafferty. “If you want to learn how to work, you learn that on a farm.”

Across Wilmington—from Southbridge to North East—more farms are popping up every year. DCH and the Urban Farm and Food Coalition have helped many of them get started. Examples include a children’s garden in Hedgeville and one on the West Side, and a handful of traditional gardens around West Center City, East Side and North East neighborhoods.

But just as many are grassroots efforts of other organizations.

Northeast Community Garden

In the Northeast—designated a food desert by the USDA, where a third of the children live below the federal poverty level—a garden was started by non-profit community group Conscious Connections.

In 2012, the director, Matthew Williams, led the mission to remediate vacant land identified as a brownfield by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources. Today, the garden is home to a swath of beds.

Through urban greening initiatives, the site is a launching pad of civic action for residents and an educational tool for at-risk kids in the area through a partnership with Delaware State University’s Co-op Extension team, which works with the youths over the summer.

And a growing number of residents in the city are getting in on the gardening trend, taking advantage of what limited yard space they have, utilizing boxes, planters and rooftop space to grow plants—and even keep bees.

Cool Springs resident Rob Pfeiffer has been harvesting his rooftop hives’ honey for three years, to the enjoyment of his friends and neighbors around Tilton Park and beyond.

“I get some honey from the hive, which I use, give away and I sell a small amount of it,” Pfeiffer says. “Selling it doesn’t nearly pay for the hives, so it’s definitely not a money-driven venture in an urban environment. I started doing it with the interest of bringing pollinators into the city. It’s satisfying to see them in the community garden and in the park across the street.”

While not every home gardener has a hive, small collections of tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and other easily grown and maintained crops are becoming a regular sight across the city, and there are plenty of rewards.

HyeJohn Chung picks tomatoes at the community garden in Wilmington, Saturday July 19, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

HyeJohn Chung picks tomatoes at the community garden in Wilmington, Saturday July 19, 2015. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Urban Gardening Benefits

Sociologists examining cities around the world have found that pride in a community nurturing urban agriculture can lead to improved social well-being, community mobilization and health benefits linked to lower rates of crime and violence.

According to several studies, the social interaction and increased physical activity of maintenance leads to healthier nutrition and an appreciation of food quality.

Many farms and gardens reach out to marginalized youths—teaching them the basics as they help tend to the never-ending work needed to grow fruits and vegetables. While some kids will always slip through the cracks, such interventions can provide much-needed direction.

As a growing number of vacant lots metamorphose into small-scale farms, promoting proper nutrition and civic cooperation, such beautification has been shown to lead to job creation from increased entrepreneurial interest.

Environmental benefits—lower carbon emissions, soil decontamination, air and noise pollution reduction—are all proven side effects.

And growing produce or taking part in a community garden reduces the financial impact of having to regularly visit the supermarket or corner store.

Going Forward

The city’s politicians are beginning to notice and appreciate the proliferation of urban gardens.

The late Eric Robinson—a city councilman, activist and community leader—was instrumental in the founding of the 12th and Brandywine site, and the space will be renamed for him later this year.

Recently, city council voted to create a land bank whose intent is to acquire blighted tax-delinquent properties and resell them in order to beautify run-down areas of the city. Once rehabilitated, a number of those areas are likely to include gardens.

Mayor Williams is amenable to the notion of relaxing city rules and fees for the local gardens to market their goods—a hindrance that will prevent Bright Spot Farms from taking part in this summer’s Cool Springs Farmers Market for the first time since partnering with Rodney Reservoir garden.

“I would relax the rules, but I want to make sure [sellers] don’t gouge the folks,” says the Mayor. “I know some people might get upset with that, but I have to regulate prices because a lot of these folks don’t have a lot of money and you’re trying to help them get fresh produce and eat healthy and you don’t want to price them out of the market.”

Strong community interest has led a number of cities around the country to update their policies to facilitate urban agriculture. In Delaware, the Department of Agriculture has made $10,000 in microgrant money available to community and urban garden initiatives around the state.

“The goals of the program support lots of grassroots efforts by all communities taking the lead themselves to provide healthy food,” says Daniel Shortridge, director of communications and marketing for the state Agriculture Department.

Once the review process is complete, a handful of Wilmington applicants will be among those given $1,000 for supplies and material to start their projects to provide healthy food to communities.

“The last few years have seen tremendous growth and interest in local community agriculture projects across our state,” says state Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee in a statement to the press last March. “And we want to support that even more.”

Community Garden Growth

If the idea of a communal project centered around growing fruits and vegetables—and in some cases, agricultural education—appeals to you, try out any of the following community gardens in northern Delaware:

Newark Community Garden
491 Stamford Dr., Fairfield Park, Newark
Newark Parks and Recreation Department and the Community Garden Committee collaborated last year to form the Newark Community Garden. Gardeners get access to a 10-by-4-ft. plot, water, and a well-stocked tool shed for $35.

Rodney Reservoir Garden
10th & Clayton, Wilmington
Delaware Public Allies and Delaware Department of Agriculture worked with residents and the city of Wilmington to form a garden on a vacant lot in October, 2010. It’s now the biggest community garden in Wilmington, with more than 6,100 square feet of growing space. Rodney Reservoir Garden teamed up with Bright Spot Ventures to create income and entrepreneurial experience for the youth aging out of foster care. Every year the garden produces hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables to be shared among Wilmington residents and sold at the Cool Springs Farmers Market.

Bellevue State Park
800 Carr Rd., Wilmington
For more than 20 years, Bellevue State Park has offered gardening plots to the public. The 200 plots, measuring 20-by-40 feet, are $35 a year.

Elsmere Community Garden
Linden Ave., Walling Park, Elsmere
With a mission to promote and nurture the people and the environment in the town of Elsmere, Elsmere Garden Society provides a community garden for local, fresh, organically-grown food. Included in membership are garden-based activities, education, and the sharing of gardening techniques and recipes. For fees, see the website.

Delaware City Community Garden
250 5th Ave., Delaware City
Located at the Community Center, the garden is a success thanks to the volunteers who made it happen. Created with raised beds in a communal area, space is frequently limited. Contact Town Hall (834-3660) for more information.


So, what do you think? Please comment below.