I want gardening to help me connect and grow with my community

Hannah Riotto holds one of the plants she plans to add to her backyard garden at her Kensington home on Clementine Street on March 23, 2019. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

I planted my backyard garden in an old bookshelf from Circle Thrift. I removed the back, took out the shelves, and screwed a post of a two-by-four in each corner, wrapping it with chicken wire to deter animals. This was my second garden and the first time I had created my own raised bed.  

I started gardening in 2015, a year after I moved to Kensington from South Philadelphia, while I was working in the floral department at Whole Foods. At the time, Whole Foods allowed employees to take houseplants that didn’t sell, so I often took plants home for free.

My home on Clementine Street and Kensington Avenue was the perfect place to start a garden because the previous tenant had left behind raised beds. This was beneficial because my backyard was concrete, and it can be dangerous to dig into the ground in the city because high amounts of lead have been found in the soil in Kensington and the other River Wards neighborhoods. Since lead can be poisonous, vegetables planted in that soil are not safe to consume.  

When I moved to my current home on Clementine Street and Frankford Avenue in 2017, the backyard did not have raised beds, so I built my own. My hobby grew more serious that year. I gave up drinking for productivity and mental health reasons and was hired at City Planter, a gardening store that offers classes, workshops, and offsite installation and planting. Gardening gave me something to do in my spare time, and it gave me a schedule. I fell in love with it.

The first time I planted a successful vegetable garden, I was thrilled. I remember being so excited to harvest a group of sweet potatoes and conducting research on how to make my future gardens even better.

In my work at City Planter, I sell houseplants to customers in the store and go out on gardening jobs. We focus on container plantings, like window boxes or potted plants, and hold planting tutorials. Our customers are all over Philadelphia, and we do a lot of work in neighborhoods like Fishtown and Northern Liberties. But we rarely work in Kensington because of the cost associated with our services.

It’s a luxury to hire a gardener. It’s not something that I can personally afford, and knowing the average income in the area, it’s probably out of a lot of my neighbors’ price ranges, too. However, gardening doesn’t have to be expensive. By recycling old furniture — like bookshelves — and buying seeds from bulk stores — like Lowes or community businesses like R&R Produce and Produce Connection on Kensington and Allegheny Avenues — gardening can be accessible.

Since I’ve started gardening, I’ve noticed many positive changes in my internal and external environments. Forcing myself to take care of something strengthens my overall character and creates discipline. Green spaces also elevate my mood. I am very sensitive to my environment and feel that other people are too, whether they realize it or not.

Above all, gardening has connected me to my community. My garden serves as a conversation-starter between my neighbors and I. My neighbors express enthusiasm when they see my plants and ask me questions about the process of keeping a garden. I feel that gardening and community go hand in hand. Additionally, everybody deserves these spaces — not just people who are wealthy.

As gardens continue to grow in Kensington, planters should consider what the community members would like in these spaces. Personally, I think gardens should be a combination of functional things — vegetables and herbs for consuming — and beautiful things that neighbors can look at and enjoy, such as flowers that bloom all season long. Zinnias are my favorite — they’re so big and bright. The blossoms don’t last super long but once they die, you clip them off and they grow back.

My dream is to eventually create a community garden. In a few years, when I can commit to a large initiative like that, I hope to start one. Until then, and for the foreseeable future, I plan to continue to live in and plant gardens in Kensington.

I’m proud of my community and I look forward to connecting with other community members who are enthusiastic about gardening.  


What did you think about this story? Send a note to editors@kensingtonvoice.com, and we’ll consider publishing it in our Voices section. Or, if you have a question you’d like us to explore in future issues, submit it through Curious Kensington. You can also tell us what you think in person at our neighborhood events.

Editor: Claire Wolters / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte

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