Hard to believe, but nearly a year ago I assembled a very impressive pool of talent from Boston, Atlanta and Philadelphia to converge on Greensgrow Farm, nationally recognized as the leader in urban sustainable farming. Its location is just three miles north of downtown Philly, barely noticeable amongst tightly packed row houses that surround it.
Until then, I hadn’t know about Greensgrow Farm, but I did know about its co-founder and chief farmhand, Mary Seton Corboy. We had worked together when she guest-hosted with me on a another show a couple years ago. I was impressed with her then, but now I know why I felt such a deep admiration for this woman.
Just over 10 years ago, Mary was in search of a place to cultivate locally grown lettuce to supply area chefs and restaurants. With such a high demand and limited supply, the idea was a sure winner…if she could just find something close and affordable. The site she found was hardly the type of location you’d expect for growing organic fruits and vegetables. You see, the one-acre plot of land was a former galvanized steel plant, now abadonded as an industrial brownfield. What would stop most people dead in their tracks didn’t faze Mary. She saw the potential, rolled up her sleeves and went to work.
Since this plot of land Mary chose to call home was unfit to plant her lettuce directly into the ground, she developed a system for growing her lettuce hydroponically, above ground and without soil. Her makeshift troughs were rain gutters. In short order she perfected her system and soon her customers were clamoring for other varieties of Mary’s delicious produce. Since not every crop is best suited for hydroponic growing, she had to find a way to utilize this finite space in a more traditional way. So she trucked in many tons of organic soil and loaded it into very deep raised beds. Soon she was not only supplying her clients with a wide variety of fruits and veggies, her bumper crops allowed her to open her business to her neighbors and community. Area residents quickly ventured into Mary’s tiny farm. On Saturdays, they would snatch up the fresh in-season produce and fruit; for many a novelty as such a treat is uncommon and unavailable in urban neighborhoods such as these.
It didn’t stop there. Rural farms and orchards just outside of town began supplying many of the edibles Mary was unable or simply didn’t have the room to grow. And from that, her “City” Supported Agricultural co-op was born. Similar to a traditional “Community” CSA, Mary likes using her version to emphasize the symbiotic link between urban dwellers with the local growers in neighboring rural communities.
And while all of this is going on, Greensgrow successfully manages to make their bio-diesel that fuels the big yellow delivery truck. The raw material is spent cooking oil from area eateries; a resource that is in no short supply! Adjacent to the fuel making operation lies a dozen or more honeybee boxes, filled with combs and oozing with honey. The bees are an important component to the success of Greensgrow’s bounty. In such an intown setting, attracting sufficient quantities of pollinators can be a daunting task. But with these happy hives, there is a plethora of pollinators and an abundance of honey. So much so in fact it too is sold at the weekly farm stand under the label Honey from the Hood.
As excited as I was to see all that was being accomplished with limited funds, space and human resources, there was still more. Between the beehives and bio-diesel, a lush and lovely living roof covered the large storage shed. Its purpose, in addition to being beautiful to look at, was to capture and retain rainwater, reducing runoff, sequester carbon and return oxygen, reduce the heat island effect and promote biodiversity. Not a bad use of space and something we could all do at our homes and businesses.
Finally, there was the community kitchen. Located at a church just down the street, Mary has arranged for Chef Corbin Evans to teach local residents everything they need to know to cook and prepare delicious meals and extend the menu with fresh in-season produce. It’s the culmination of the complete cycle and a wonderful example of sustainability in action.
You can likely understand my infatuation with this urban agricultural wonderland and why I was so excited to be there for the location of my first episode and pilot of my new series. I’ve always wanted a forum to tell stories of people, places, and companies that are doing their part to grow a greener world. I’d say Mary and her small but talented staff are prime examples of that! It just goes to show you, abandoned land only is only unproductive if you choose to leave it that way!
River Sand, Inc. says
Just goes to show that necessity is the mother of invention! A little hard work plus a little innovation plus a little idea equals an awesome end product. Way to go!
Small Garden Ideas says
I love going to places like this because they have almost every thing that you need in your garden plus you can also get discounts there.
Joe Lamp'l says
Thanks Layanee for your encouraging words. We’re all very excited here and working really hard. I’ll see the pilot today for the very first time and I hear it turned out very nice. I think you’ll be very happy with the content we plan on putting out there with our show. Thanks for checking in and keep in touch and let us know what you think!
All that energy and innovative thinking should be a sure fire success for launching this show. We are all in need of a down to earth gardening show and I am looking forward to this one. Best of luck and keep it green.
Joe Lamp'l says
Thanks TC. I hadn’t seen you around lately and now I know why. Good to hear from you and thanks for your words of support. I’m determined to prove you right!
Hi Joe! Good luck with the new show! This look at your first episode is proof enough for me that it’ll be a winner!
(Sorry I’ve not been around much lately. These early mornin hours as a school bus driver has affected my schedule much more than I figured it would.)
Joe Lamp'l says
Hi Laura. Thanks so much for your awesome comment. Glad to see you get it! You make an interesting connection to cancer rates. I don’t think I mentioned this in my post but Mary is a cancer survivor as well. Having been given only a few months to live, today, she is a walking miracle in so many ways. Please keep in touch and I’ll keep posting updates. Thanks again.
I cannot wait to see this show. That she took the leap to garden organically on such a large scale in an an abandoned steel plant is nothing short of amazing; and frankly, I wish that type of good old American ingenuity would resurface in cities across the country.
We see it in various towns from time to time, but if urban organic gardening became a mainstay in the majority of our towns instead of a novelty, how cool would that be? I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that even cancer rates would go way down.
But I digress, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series as well! Hopefully this episode will ignite a similar passion in a few more Marys out there. 🙂
Joe Lamp'l says
Abana & Corbin. Greensgrow was even better than I expected. As excited as I was to document all the great things, this is a place I will never forget. The vision and follow through, as well as the leadership of Mary now touches many lives. Even my writing can’t truly capture the specialness of Mary and Greensgrow. I too am anxious to see the video. And unfortunately, this episode isn’t long enough to really do it justice. But we’ll do our best. Thanks for your comments.
Abana Jacobs says
What a hard working crew! You captured the essence of Greensgrow. I look forward to seeing the final footage. I am sure you don’t want to leave anything on the cutting room floor. All the Best! AJ
Corbin Evans says
Great article Joe. Glad I was able to help out. Good luck with the show!
Chris McLaughlin says
This is going to be an amazing show, Joe! I can’t wait. Just looking at the pics (well, and some others you’ve posted) makes me excited to see that first episode!