Occupy Vacant Lots – off to a start!

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A group that initially met at Occupy Philly on October 25th to discuss a Direct Action around composting on Dilworth Plaza, has now morphed into a much larger group focused on, to put it simply: Occupy Vacant Lots.

Earlier this week, 2 of us from Transition Philadelphia & Occupy Philly (Michaelann & Meenal) were inspired to respond to an open invitation from Robyn Mello of Philly Food Forests (PFF) for a Hands-On Vacant Lot Improvement Training on Mercy Street in South Philadelphia.  This invitation reached us several ways: via the above mentioned group, Philly Food Forests, Philadelphia Urban Farm Network (fondly called PUFN), even Facebook.

Meenal and I were the first to arrive.  Robyn and Joe were there soon after with residents of the block making their welcome clear to the gardeners. We started peeking around the gardens on either side of the street. Though this is the time of the year when most gardens have been put to bed, we saw plenty of life kicking in these gardens. Mustard and winter hardy greens, Jerusalem artichokes, herbs, parsley, clovers, and marigolds were still lively; not to mention, bees, slugs, worms, and snails! What we did not see were conventional linear garden plots.

The Philly Food Forest website says, in our vision, “there won’t be traditional plots, but rather an emphasis on cultivating the space to eventually grow to be self-sufficient and mimic a natural, wild environment.”  And, indeed, there was not a straight tilled row to be seen. What we saw was the developing framework of a multiple level forest garden. Old and newly planted trees dotted the lots. Shrubs and herbs filled some of the brick-lined curvy beds. Tomato vines covered chain link fences. Below the level of the soil were the sunchoke tubers which Joe was, enthusiastically, harvesting! Other beds were bare, waiting to be planted with more perennials and favored annuals in the spring. They use Permaculture design strategies as well as organic gardening methods from Biodynamic, urban, and bio-intensive traditions. With a commitment to utilizing reclaimed materials, we recognized innovative use of materials for platforms, fencing, storage, compost bins, artwork, signage, and trellises.

More people came to the site as we poked around; some bringing tools and supplies, others bringing food; and, still, others bringing coffee from down the street. Primarily, everyone was coming to support this fantastic effort as well as to understand more how to replicate this type of action in other neighborhoods.

It is so clear. Abandoned lots that serve only as neglected and dangerous dumping grounds for trash could, instead, serve to grow healthy food and be a center for community. Actions of stewardship could empower, strengthen, and stabilize communities. Of course, a lot of questions arise; as well they should. How do you approach a neighborhood to initiate an action such as this? What happens if you receive a negative response? How do you get neighbors to become involved? How do you keep it maintained? What about legal issues?

What Robyn describes is not an abrupt takeover of, what appears to be, available land.  It is best if you or someone you know lives in the neighborhood of the site. If you think you have found an appropriate site, find out the facts. Who owns it? Is anyone else working on a project in this community? Do the research. She recalls that they knocked on neighbors’ doors, one by one, and spoke with the residents. She learned about the people in the community and about the history of the community.  In turn, she shared her thoughts and intentions. While building this relationship, and with support of like-hearted people, Robyn began to clear years and years of debris from the lots. Some of the lots have been abandoned for 20 years! There are 18 vacant lots of on this street. With a “go-ahead” from the residents, more than half of these have been cleared and planted by Philly Food Forests and the Nationalities Service Center.  She advises that a consistent presence, even if only a couple of people show up to a work party, will make a big difference in the eyes of the neighborhood.  She admits that when she comes to the garden to work; she can feel overwhelmed with the amount of work to do.  However, after looking upon the day’s work and seeing the transformation in the landscape as a result of direct action; she ends up re-energized and re-focused. The results are valued and protected by the neighbors.

Most of the Mercy Emily Edible Park (MEEP) gardens are, fully, accessible to anyone. Citing specific examples, Robyn said that the neighbors have kept a watch on the gardens even when there are no gardeners present, and they have had no problems with vandalism. We learned that, as the gardens were being established, neighbors from adjacent streets expressed interest in having gardens on their block. She told us a story in which one of the residents, initially objected to the changes but, now; wants to start his own gardening project on the corner by his house!

The food that grows in the gardens is shared without request of financial or work contribution. The neighbors haven’t fully embraced working in the gardens at this point. Robyn acknowledges that this will take time and looks forward to seeing this dynamic emerge. Being a living example for the community is her primary educational modality.

A recent and very relevant post has been moving through several of the related list serves. Written by Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer who has been assisting community activists through the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI) at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.  In words, Amy reflects Robyn’s actions almost point by point. This important document will be a guide for anyone who wishes to clean out and grow gardens in vacant lots. For the highly recommended document, please, go here.

An excerpt from a Philly Food Forests blog entry sticks with me. It awakens us to the process, purpose, and tenacity that is needed for occupying vacant lots for growing gardens in our communities.

“Philly Food Forests is about taking back the land for ourselves. It’s not all about channeling the beauty of jeweled pepper bushes. It’s not all about the luscious ripening of infinite tomatoes or the long trailing vines of squash plants. We must become weeds in our own space if we want to own it fully. We grow every day, broadening and deepening our reach. We devise strategies of integration around existing structures. We can’t take back the land if we don’t put in the time. We can’t put in the time if we don’t have a stake in the soil. Like little barbs, we must need the garden as much as we need to brush our teeth and watch our TV. Their strength of purpose is inspiring. If we don’t learn this truth from the weeds, then the weeds will always win.

The volunteers picked up debris and filled contractor bags. The street side was swept. The potted thornless blackberries were tended. After a while, several of us found our way to working together to clear cement and trash and asphalt from the back fence of one of the gardens. Shovels, rakes, picks, and hands were our tools. Power tools are not necessary for tending this garden. A cherry tree was planted. We consulted on composting and talked about the rainwater catchment system. There was plenty of networking. Filmmakers, journalists, community activists, gardeners, builders, and educators shared information about contacts, locations, resources, and projects.

There is so much growing here. Food. Beauty. Community resilience. Transition. Self reliance. Wisdom. Health. I hope we can have the intelligence, the patience, the energy, the heart, and the courage to take back the land with love.

Here are some of the groups that are interested in this type of effort:

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Insulated sleeping pod at Occupy Philly

We’ve all been watching the tent city sprout up around Philadelphia’s City Hall.  New-found friends Jean & Jonas have imagined wintertime sleeping in the thin nylon tents, and decided to use their Permaculture knowledge to build an insulated sleeping pod.

Their thinking was to use the same principles as a survival shelter in a forested situation, only with locally found materials.  They did this with mostly found materials: cardboard, pallets, leaves for insulation (could be replaced with crushed-up newspaper), packing tape, black plastic sheathing; the black should help with solar gain during the day, plus some furring strips purchased for $12.

Tools used were basic hand tools – a hammer, nails, staple gun, utility knife, and hand saw.




It was a prototype which they think could be improved upon. Key things they considered:
– Provide insulation and thermal break from the ground. Since wood transfers cold up from the concrete, they used cardboard between concrete & pallet to provide the thermal break.
– Keep it small. The bigger the shelter, the more heat loss. The idea was to contain your own body heat as it escapes your body, and utilize this to keep the space warm.

Construction of this winterized sleeping pod was completed on Saturday Nov 12th. A fellow named Rob who had just arrived from Reading helped Jean & Jonas build it, and even used it on Saturday night. According to another friend Shira, Rob’s response to his first night in this insulated pod was “I was sweating my balls off in there!!”

They think just insulating and wrapping bottom pallets for tents on top would also help.

As of last night, it was still at Dilworth Plaza, to the left of the Ron Paul tent.  If interested in refining the design, please contact us!

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Joining forces for a regional Transition effort

In light of the organic, grassroots and very dynamic efforts of Occupy Wall Street, our own Occupy Philadelphia, the Occupy Together movement surging across the globe, and the varied reskilling efforts already going on in our region, we are pleased to announce that this Food Action Group will be teaming up with Transition Philadelphia to form a regional Transition effort.

Transition Philadelphia warmly welcomes the new members from the North: Cheltenham, Germantown & Mount Airy. The energy and ideas these new members bring to our group has been exciting. Transition Philadelphia’s Skillsharer Directory and initial effort at inventorying existing practitioners are both great ways of promoting local goods and services – necessary for building a resilient Southeastern PA.

This fall, we’re planning Weekly Story Sharing & Visioning with Occupy Philadelphia, tentatively on Tuesday afternoons. Transition Philadelphia’s Monthly Awareness Raising Events on the 3rd Monday of each month will continue as well. Together, we hope to draw the attention of Occupy Philadelphia to environmental issues and sustainable solutions.

For more info, please go to: transitionphiladelphia.org | Facebook transitionphiladelphia

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Meet author of Fair Food – Oran Hesterman

Join us for a book talk with Oran Hesterman, author of  “Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All“,  whose menu for change offers the reader questions to ask at farmers’ markets, tools for starting buy-fresh/buy-local campaigns; advice for forming buyer’s clubs that purchase food directly from farmers and fishermen, and guidance about the legislation to support at the local, state, and federal levels.

When: 7 till 9pm

Where: Congregation Kol Ami, 8401 High School Rd in Elkins Park, PA 19027

Meet Oran, ask questions, and learn more about food systems.  The time for systemic, practical, and widespread action is at hand, and FAIR FOOD is the ideal resource and guide for readers who want to be a part of the fair food revolution.

The book will be available for purchase at the event.

A portion of proceeds from book sales will go to
Fair Food Network.

More about the book at www.fairfoodbook.org.

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This lengthy post is intended to share our Permablitz process and learning experiences with you. If you are involved in planning a permablitz or interested in Transition Town efforts, we hope you can benefit from reading about our experiences. We welcome your questions and/or feedback. Click on the photos if you wish to view larger images. Continue reading

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May Permablitz Site: Important Update


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Clearly, Bill and Bonnie are enjoying some gardening success after our Permablitz this past May. You can read about that event here.

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Mettler gardens, yesterday. The photos represent just a sampling of what I saw. Bill and Bonnie have a real eye for beauty…though, nature plays a darn good hand, too! It was inspiring to see the variety of herbs, vegetables, and flowers in the area that we sheet mulched in May. Here’s the list…Ready? Thyme, Marjoram, Mint, Parsley, Cilantro (in flower), Arugala (in flower), Kale, Broccoli (heads harvested), Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant, Cucumber, Summer squash, Winter squash, Teddy Bear Sunflowers, Calendula, Carrots, Beets, Swiss Chard, Sweet Cicely (small but hangin’ in there), Bush beans, Pole beans, Peppers, Marigolds, Zinnia (seedlings), Borage, Basil, Nasturtium, Chamomile…no doubt, I’m missing something! The soil appears to be developing nicely. The cardboard that we used for sheet mulching is, barely, evident. I saw no tell tale signs of nitrogen deficiency such as yellowing leaves. But it isn’t paradise, yet! Groundhogs and squash vine borers and cucumber beetles…oh my! It wouldn’t be interesting without a few challenges, Right? Congratulations, Bill and Bonnie!

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July Permablitz Invitation

You’re invited to the
3rd Permablitz
organized by Transition Cheltenham’s Food Action Group
(read about 1st Permablitz here & 2nd Permablitz here)

                                                                                                                     What we’ll do
Regenerate Our Suburban Soil & Manage Our Stormwater

Come work with us
in creating gardens that are productive as they regenerate depleted and compacted soil.
Come learn with us
about rainwater catchment and about managing our stormwater with landscaping, gardens, and healthy soils.
Come celebrate with us
and support our new local food producer!

  You’re also welcome to simply watch & take pictures!
Bring a favorite garden tool & work gloves
Refreshments provided
Event is free and open to the public

Saturday July 23rd from 9 till 2

At the home of Jordan & Andrea Swift
313 Harrison Ave, Glenside PA 19038

Andrea Swift    |   267-670-0917   |   aswift44th@gmail.com
a Transition Cheltenham event

A little more about what’s planned… To prevent driveway flooding after a rain, we’ll construct a bio-swale along the side of the driveway. Beneath the lawn we found hard, clay soil – difficult to grow in. We’ll till the lawn, and mix in horse manure and compost to build the soil. There is no compost bin at this home to receive on-going kitchen scraps; a simple compost bin will be built behind the detached garage.

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This is a link to a relevant post in my personal blog. Go to Food…Action! It will update you on several of our group’s current actions including our work at LaMott garden, the Arcadia University garden, and our permablitz series. Stay tuned for details about our upcoming Permablitz III on July 23rd!

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Permablitz Resources

Here is a list of resources that we used for our second permablitz. If you have any recommendations for or questions about resources; let us know. We’d be interested in trying out other and, preferably, local suppliers and businesses.

Composted horse manureBopegan Farm, Fort Washington, PA – donation requested – will load your pick up with appointment                                                   http://bopeganfarm.com/default.aspx

Leaf compostUpper Dublin composting facility -1128 Camphill Rd, Fort Washington, PA                                                                                                                    http://www.upperdublin.net/departments/publicworks/compost.aspx

Topsoil, Dwarf indigo and yellow indigo plants, blueberry plantPrimex in Glenside, PA                                                                                        http://primexgardencenter.com/

Sorrel and alpine strawberries and golden currantsOikos Tree Crops, Michigan.  The plants were small and looking a tad shaky; though most with good deep roots. Good price on large order (25) of alpine strawberries. http://www.oikostreecrops.com/store/home.asp

All other plants excepting mushroom spawnAaron Guman Permaculture Design and Nursery, West Chester, PA – Awesome plants! Aaron works with you to get the right plant and will help you with your design questions. He has great resources and energy AND he delivers at a very reasonable fee.                                                                      gumanpermaculture at gmail dot com                                                                                               610.308.4138                                                                                            http://gumanpermaculture.blogspot.com/

Wine Cap Mushroom/Stropharia rugosa-annulata/Sawdust SpawnField and Forest, Wisconsin                                                                                                   http://www.fieldforest.net/store/index.php?main_page=page&id=3&chapter=0

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Another Lawn Reclaimed – for Pears Blueberries Mushrooms and more…

Father’s Day found the Food Action Group busy at their 2nd Permablitz – this time at the Hamburg residence in Glenside.

Prior to the blitz, the team had met with the family and developed a plan for the pear guildand another for the blueberry guild.

We learned that a guild is a group of species that share resources or create relationships of mutual support.  In creating a fruit guild, we wish for high, diverse yields while minimizing competition for resources and maximizing ecological health and self-maintenance within the system.

Other team members coordinated trips with a borrowed pickup truck to get horse manure and compost onsite, placing both right on the pristine front lawn!  A new raised bed was constructed atop the front lawn for the blueberry guild, pachysandra was uprooted from under a weeping cherry tree to make room for mushrooms.

A visit to the Tran residence across the street thrilled us to see lemons, yes citrus, growing in pots. There were many Asian greens we’d never heard off, with cherry & persimmon trees and even a koi pond.




While planting the Asian Pear guild, we learned the need for appropriate plant selection for the guild.  Ground covers help control weeds and erosion; nitrogen fixers and dynamic accumulators help maintain fertility & build the soil; season-long flowing provides food for beneficial insects and pollinators; and finally, that we include shelter and food for beneficial insects and wildlife.

Jordan turned 11 and we all stopped for water ice & pretzels.  Aunt Esther had a 92nd birthday party planned for the evening. And Noah pulled out some chilled hard cider.

Planted the Blueberry guild in the raised bed, along with Green and Gold, wild blue indego, yellow wild Indego, alpine strawberries, sorrel and gooseberry.







Mushrooms of the Winecap variety were planted in the shade of the weeping cherry in the front yard, and also underneath the steps to the back deck. Cardboard, woodchips, spawn and hay were layered, carefully watering each layer before covering, using approximately 1/3 cup of spawn per sf.

Discussions already underway for our 3rd Permablitz.

All in all, a successful second Permablitz was had on Father’s Day at the Hamburg residence.

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