Greensgrow: Transforming a City Through Homegrown Food

Robyn Jasko

Robyn Jasko › Robyn Jasko is the creator of GrowIndie.com, which is all about food independence, diy-style. She ...

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Since Greensgrow first rooted in 1997 on a trash-strewn vacant lot in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, they have become a stellar example of how urban agriculture and local foods can transform a neighborhood. Today, they are a fully functional urban farm, leading the nation in their example of sustainable practices by helping connect people of all income levels to fresh food grown right in the heart of the city.

Complete with a thriving CSA, a full service nursery, bees, chickens, and Milkshake the Pig, Greensgrow is a magical place–demonstrating the power of homegrown foods and the future of getting back to our roots as farmers, no matter where you live.

We took a moment to chat with visionary Mary Seton Corboy, Greensgrow Co-Founder, who saw a lot more than just a vacant lot, 15-plus years ago, when she started a little urban farm in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, inspiring a new generation in Philly and beyond:

Greengrow has always been about fitting in to this community.

Robyn Jasko: How have things evolved since you began Greensgrow? How has the community responded?  What are some of the hurdles you’ve had to overcome?

Mary Seton Corboy: I think people have yet to understand Greensgrow, our mission, or our madness. I have to say, though, that the community adopted (at the time) a very strange concept–even though I don’t think it fits into their preconceived notions of development. Greensgrow kind of flows out of its mission. It has rather amoeba-like sides.

RJ: What are you excited about for the future of Greensgrow?

MSC: A second location and continuing to grow this first one into something that is unlike what anyone else does. Lets face it, it’s kind of circus-like here.

RJ: What advice do you have for other people in cities across the country that are looking to start an urban farm/garden center?

MSC: I think so many people want to start urban farms for their own personal reasons and those reasons are so varied. Some entrepreneurship, some just because it’s ‘in’, some because of what they see as food injustice. The thing is you have to pick your poison and stick to it. Urban farms can’t be panaceas for all the ills of society–and I’ve been doing this almost 20 years. It’s not a step along the way. It’s the final step.

RJ: Why is it important for people in the city to try and grow some of their own food?

MSC: Strictly for education, really. We are lucky to be in the center of a tremendous breadbasket, people in our area don’t realize how good we have it. But even surrounded by farms we forgot as a society what food was, where it came from, what goes into producing it. The labor and the hand of God. Or mother nature or whatever people want to call the ‘it’ that calls the big shots in life.

RJ: What advice do you give to first time visitors looking to start a small raised bed or container garden, but they have no idea where to start? Are there any particular varieties or types of plants you recommend they start with?

MSC: Well, keep it simple. We have to stop people we see trying to buy too many plants. I’d say that’s the biggest thing for first timers. It’s easy to want plants in spring. The real gardeners want them in August when it’s brutal out.

RJ: I recently heard you guys received a grant for adding solar to Greensgrow—-what are the plans for this? What are you installing?

MSC: Not a huge system but a very visible one. We want people to use Greensgrow–just stopping by—as educationalal in all manner of sustainable and environmental practices without beating you over the head or lecturing. People can see that this is all just part of life and a better life for you and the people around you.

RJ: I love that you have Milkshake the Pig, ducks and chickens at Greensgrow. Most urban farm centers stop at flowers and veggies, but you took it a step further—why was this important to you guys?

MSC: I don’t think it was a conscious decision on our part. Like so many things here it just happened. I actually found Milkshake on Craigslist and thought it would be cute for our Fall Festival. People fell in love with him at first snort and it showed us a side of the community we didn’t know. The same thing with the chickens and Ping the Duck–mostly they come from other people who toss them over the fence to us but it’s created a different place. Much more family oriented and I hope it has taken away some of the elite sense–that is not who we are at all. Greengrow has always been about fitting in to this community and Milkshake is the ambassador of that. Plus, quite frankly, we have the resources, space and staff to really take very good care of all our animals.

RJ: What are some of your favorite things being grown at Greensgrow? What new things are you excited about offering this year?

MSC: I get so excited each spring, it’s almost pathetic. I think just rejuvenation of the earth of the spirit. I crave warm weather and sun I want to leave my desk and get my hands dirty. I love that we grow in small steps not leaps and bounds. It’s more natural.

RJ: Your CSA program is a huge hit, and I love that you also offer work share to make it affordable to all—–why are city CSAs important, and how was yours evolved over the years?

MSC: Well we need a variety of food choices in cities (and in every community in cities), not just for the well-to-do. Our CSA was always built on the idea of variety. How much cabbage can one family eat when we could show off the riches of the region including the oddities tucked here and there. Local and well grown food touched by human hands has a special quality to it–that I don’t think you can analyze in a lab. Being part of the food system which is what CSA members are is a step into a way of life most people don’t know, but deep within us we crave it.

RJ: Anything else you want to add about Greensgrow for the Handpicked Nation audience?

MSC: Come see us. I think Greensgrow has to be seen in context to be understood. It’s like, “Whoa, what the . . .?”

Have you ever visited a farm in the city? Tell us what you think about people growing food in their local urban communities.

Photo credit: Paul David