Monthly Archives: July 2015

City Gardens – Philadelphia and Berlin

I didn’t WANT to go into Philadelphia yesterday, but was forced by the urgent need to be fingerprinted. Every volunteer who works with children must be fingerprinted. I also had to fill out extensive forms. The computer rejected my NJ mailing address and rebuked me for failing to list my parents under “who have you lived with since 1975?” Getting clearance to work with kids isn’t easy.

These days, fingerprinting is accomplished at the UPS store. (Cost is $27.) You touch a glass plate and the computer records your prints. No more ink!

Errand accomplished, I met my son for a stroll in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. We unexpectedly found ourselves at the gate of the Schuylkill River Park Community Garden. A sign invited us in, asking that we refrain from picking anything, and stay out of the garden plots. Fine! What a beautiful place! In the central gazebo, we found information about the organization that runs the garden. You can check it out at

Parts of the garden are dedicated to growing food for a distribution program. Every individually worked plot is different! Wildly different! Some are devoted to tomatoes, others to flowers. Sunflowers tower here and there. I was impressed by the number of birds to be seen, especially at the central arbor/gazebo. I felt jealous of gardeners who don’t have to worry about deer, and may even be protected against rabbits!

The day was hot. We saw no one working, but the place didn’t feel deserted. I’m sure if I had given in to temptation and snitched a cherry tomato, I would have been caught.

This is an aristocrat among Philadelphia’s community gardens. I see other, more casual gardens from the train as I come and go from 30th Street station, and I know there are cultivated lots in many neighborhoods. When we left, we wandered down to the bike trail beside the Schuylkill, another improvement that makes Philadelphia a pleasant city.

This surprise visit reminded me of the garden plots in Berlin (Germany), where I spent a summer as a student. World War II was almost 30 years in the past, but people were still contentedly living in sheds in the gardens! Periodically, the government tried to relocate them, but without success. The garden plots in Berlin were big – I’m guessing 25 by 50 feet or more. The sheds looked sturdy. Most plots had a grass section and lawn furniture. One evening an apartment dwelling friend took me out to his plot with his family. This was a ritual – evening drinks in the garden, a ten minute drive from home. Surely it made apartment life more pleasant.

I Googled ‘Berlin allotment gardens” and found this excellent article.

The author observed “The gardens were immaculately groomed, yet densely populated with vegetables, flowers and often a fruit tree or two. It made me wonder if Berlin’s multicultural quilt included elves and gnomes.”

Author Jonathan Thompson suggests similar gardens would improve American cities. I agree, and would love to see them added to the urban landscape.


“Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer” by Novella Carpenter

Penguin Press, 2009, 269 pages.

This book presents a striking contrast to “The Good Food Revolution – Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” by Will Allen, which I reviewed on January 29, 2015.

For starters, Allen farms in chilly Milwaukee, whereas Carpenter lives in sunny southern California. Allen is incredibly systematic and diligent, and good at using “the system” to get grants and organize groups. Carpenter is eccentric, rebellious and individualistic. Both manage to raise food in a city setting. Each has a progressive to liberal/radical political agenda. Other than that, they have little in common.

Carpenter did not own the urban land she farmed, describing herself as a squatter. She lived, by choice, in a neighborhood most of us would never consider – violent and poverty stricken, a marginal community full of marginalized, struggling people. To her, sharing was an integral part of being an urban farmer. She gated but did not lock her garden, and rarely interfered with people who helped themselves to her produce. She scavenged extensively, often in the dumpsters behind restaurants.

But these two farmers share a vision of a highly altered urban landscape, and I consider most of the changes they advocate to be highly desirable from an environmental point of view.

One of Carpenter’s especial goals was to raise meat on her urban farm, and the book plots her passage from poultry to rabbits to pigs. She raised two hogs (not pigs, but full sized hogs). Her monetary investment was minor, but the labor of feeding the fast growing hogs on dumpster sourced food sounded overwhelming. I wonder if she did it again.

One reason I can’t imagine living Carpenter’s life style if that it seems overwhelmingly dirty. She kept poultry in her apartment, rabbits on her deck, pigs beside her building.

Both Carpenter and Allen are well worth reading. I would love to see both cities and suburbs producing food (and flowers!) and supporting birds and other wildlife.

“Wild Child and Other Stories” by T C Boyle

Why don’t I read more short stories? I picked up this book at the dentist’s office (see my blog entry of May 28). The title story is what caught my attention – I powered right through it. It was long and dense, not what I expect when I hear the term “short story”.

Then I read “Balto”, written from the viewpoint of a young teenager whose alcoholic father screws up big time, ending up in court in a situation where the testimony of the daughter will determine the father’s fate. And I realized I wanted MORE, I wanted a whole novel, not just this short story. I wanted to know what happened next to this troubled family…

I read “La Conchita” and wanted to know if the epiphany experienced by the alienated protagonist when he saved lives during an unanticipated emergency changes his life. Or does he drift back to his “old normal”?

So THAT’S my problem with short stories. If they are good, I want MORE!

I passed this collection of stories along to a hospitalized friend. Maybe short stories are good for a person living with distractions and interruptions… I hope so. Time for me to check out other work by T C Boyle, including his full length novels.

“SuperStorm – Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy” by Kathryn Miles

Published 2014, 332 pages, 8 color plates.

Maybe I should get the personal stuff out of the way first? Sandy was not our first weather catastrophe in 2012. South Jersey was hit hard by a derecho on June 30. It was a rogue thunderstorm with “straight line winds”, and it was not predicted. My husband and I woke around 1 am to an impressive display of heat lightning. A glance at the Rain-dar cell phone weather app showed that a storm was closing around us. The wind hit hard, thunder and lightning exploded, and we hurried downstairs, frightened. I don’t think the action lasted more than ten minutes. Our electricity was off. We wandered back to bed, relatively unconcerned. In the morning, we discovered the intensity and extent of the damage. Personally, we were lucky.

And regionally, we were (sort of) lucky. When Hurricane Sandy came lumbering through five months later, the weaker trees had already fallen down and lots of utility poles and wires and transmission towers were newly repaired.

Hurricane Sandy was very different from the derecho. Sandy was predicted. We listened to days and days of analysis. Remembering our 48 hours without power after the derecho, we stocked up on batteries, water and food that wouldn’t require cooking. Institutions made plans and battened themselves down. The local college closed its dormitories and sent the students home. Sandy was not officially a hurricane when it hit the East coast. The eye passed over us almost innocuously. The colossal storm surge did much of the damage, and the worst winds and rain missed our neighborhood.

The book Superstorm is a detailed, comprehensive discussion of the storm, with emphasis on meteorology and forecasting. The book follows several interesting threads, like the sinking of the tall ship Bounty and the heroic efforts that saved all but two members of the crew.

Superstorm is organized chronologically and emphasizes science but reaches out into politics, history, psychology and other fields in order to deal with important questions about human behavior. How do you explain the uncertainty inherent in weather forecasting? What motivates people to evacuate, on the one hand, or to defiantly remain in the face of danger? How do you communicate when your audience is already saturated with internet and social media chatter that ranges from informative to just plain bizarre (like conspiracy theory)?

Read this book! I would really like author Kathryn Miles to tackle the issues that emerged after Sandy. Where should we rebuild? Are there parts of the coast that must be abandoned? How much money should be invested in putting houses and businesses back into their pre-storm condition? How much should be invested in infrastructure changes? How do you manage reconstruction to minimize fraud?

Another set of issues emerging after Sandy surrounded the definition of a hurricane. Criteria for wind speed, wave height and “eye” structure don’t tell the whole story. In the future, there will be more emphasis on storm surge prediction.

This book is another in a series of high quality “science for non-scientists” books I’ve read lately. (See my posts of June 19, May 3 and January 29, 2015.) Is this a genre? If so, it’s one of my favorites. This is the kind of book I could aspire to write.

“The Ginseng Hunter – A Novel” by Jeff Talarigo

A few years ago, I remonstrated with a friend who purchased a health-branded product (herbal tea?) that included ginseng. “It’s an endangered plant! How come everyone wants to take care of endangered birds and ignores endangered plants?” I don’t remember my little rant having any impact.

Why is ginseng “hunted”? It can be farmed, but that is a slow and difficult process. Ginseng is thought to have positive medicinal properties, but it has never been approved as a drug in the United States. (Wikipedia)

Ginseng is featured in the title of this short, griping novel, but its possible endangered status is far from being the focus of the book.

This book is about North Korea and China and the border between them.

The ginseng hunter lives alone, but his memories include his father and uncle who taught him to harvest wild ginseng, and his mother who raised him. He lives in China but carries Korean blood and speaks both languages. He can see the river border between the two countries from his house.

This book takes place in the year 2000. I had to keep reminding myself of this, because so much about it (especially the atmosphere) seems medieval. Famine and oppression in adjacent North Korea are bad and getting worse, and the ginseng hunter begins to encounter starving, desperate refugees – a woman, several men, and a little girl. He gradually realizes that, despite his simple life and relative poverty, he has the power to help or destroy these sufferers.

The outcomes of these encounters vary as the ginseng hunter is drawn unwillingly from his isolation and into what the press now refers to as a “humanitarian crisis”.

The book ends with the planting of a vegetable garden, one larger than is needed by a man who lives alone.

Another Source of Books – The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

The local Great Books discussion group asked me recently to recommend a novel for summer reading. The group meets just once each summer. I can’t remember what suggestions I offered, and I suspect I will be away on vacation. The selected book is All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.

A friend offered three titles, saying they were good novels she had read for a book group sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Really?! It never occurred to me that a horticultural society would sponsor a book group.

I tracked down one of the novels she listed, and will write about it soon. The other two were not in my local library – I’ll download them from Amazon for my upcoming beach vacation.

I looked at the PHS web site, and found no mention of a reading group. Maybe it is restricted to members? But they have so much going on! I can imagine myself having a great time with the Society after I retire.

The books I DIDN’T find yet are

  • The Last Garden by Helen Humphries
  • Flora by Gail Godwin

Have you read any good garden-oriented books recently?