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Gardener: Urban pioneer Greensgrow Farm leads by example

By Joe Lamp'l |

Gardener: Urban pioneer Greensgrow Farm leads by example
Photo by (SHNS photo courtesy Courtenay Vanderbilt)
Much is packed into this small, one-acre setting at Greensgrow Farm.

Just three miles north of downtown Philadelphia, tucked within a sea of tightly packed row houses, lies Greensgrow Farm. Much is crammed into this one-acre setting. And although there is a full-service garden center, it's the many other things going on there that have made the farm the nationally recognized leader in urban sustainable farming.

Ten years ago, the land where this urban farm now sits was an abandoned galvanized steel plant, hardly the kind of place most people imagine as an ideal site for growing fresh fruits and vegetables. But then again, most people aren't Mary Seton Corboy, the co-founder and visionary behind all that happens at Greensgrow. At the time she discovered this plot of land, Mary was looking for a place to grow fresh, locally grown lettuce to supply area restaurants that were craving produce harvested at the peak of freshness.

But there was one slight problem with this location. The soil had been contaminated by its former use; Mary had to come up with an efficient way to grow the lettuce safely and organically. Growing hydroponically aboveground and without soil solved that challenge. Soon she had perfected her techniques, and the demand rose for more varieties from Mary's urban farm. To solve the next challenge of growing crops that prefer soil to water, Mary created very deep raised beds and trucked in tons of soil. Her relatively small farm was now growing and supplying top Philadelphia chefs with everything from cabbage to carrots, tomatoes, peppers and even figs from trees growing in large containers.

As Mary continued to take on one challenge after another, she realized that her location provided an even bigger opportunity. By providing fresh fruits and vegetables to a community where access to such goods was very limited, it gave her the chance to share the bounty and touch the lives of her neighbors in an important way.

Greensgrow started a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, in which nearby residents buy "shares," paying a flat fee for a large quantity of produce every week in the summer and autumn. With bumper crops of so many vegetable varieties, on Saturdays from spring through fall, fresh-from-the-farm garden fruits and veggies are available for sale to non-CSA members, too -- along with crops brought in from other area growers.

In the spirit of self-sufficiency, Greensgrow Farm also makes the biodiesel that fuels its delivery truck. Used cooking oil from nearby restaurants is abundant and happily donated to provide the raw material that allows the big yellow truck to keep on truckin'.

What's a farm without honeybees to pollinate the crops? But in such a setting, getting bees in sufficient numbers to adequately pollinate everything can be another challenge of urban farming. Boxes of beehives are now on site. Besides playing such a critical role in the growing operation, they make so much honey that Greensgrow sells it as "Honey from the Hood" at their weekly farm stand.

Productivity is the norm for every inch of space at Greensgrow. Along with the biodiesel factory and honeybee operation, a large storage shed nearby provides the support for a lush and thriving living roof. The goal of this and every green roof is to capture and retain as much rainfall as possible to minimize the impact of surface runoff. The living roof also absorbs carbon dioxide, produces oxygen, mitigates the heat island effect and promotes biodiversity.

Community kitchens provide many opportunities, as a place where people can meet to swap recipes, share a meal or simply combine resources to save money while enjoying fellowship. Greensgrow recently added a community kitchen to the operation as well. Located at a church just down the street, the idea is to teach people how to cook, prepare and preserve fresh, delicious meals with locally grown, in-season food. It's the final step to complete the food cycle and learn great ways to stretch that menu.

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(Joe Lamp'l, host of "GardenSMART" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information visit For more stories, visit

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