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The city’s own urban oasis

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The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Pop-up park at 20th and Market, Wednesday, August 3, 2011, in Philadelphia.

In Center City, a lot at 20th and Market streets that has sat vacant for more than two decades is now a green urban garden thanks to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

And, for the rest of the summer, the new 32,000-square-foot Pop-Up Garden — one of three PHS created earlier this year — will host a wide variety of family-friendly activities.

Tucked along the busy Market Street thoroughfare and hidden in the shadows of towering skyscrapers on all sides, the park is an urban oasis in Center City.

Inside the PHS has installed a variety of topiary sculptures and “écolibrium,” an example of sustainable building and gardening created by Temple University Ambler — both leftovers from this year’s Philadelphia International Flower Show — as well as production gardens for herbs and vegetables.

“We wanted to take elements of [the flower show] and put them out in the community,” said PHS spokesman Alan Jaffe as he walked through the park on a sunny Wednesday morning last week. “We wanted to give it another life.”

Along with this park, elements of the flower show have been placed throughout Logan Square — maybe you’ve noticed the fanciful carousel animals carved from hedges? — on the Ben Franklin Parkway at 18th Street, while the PHS headquarters at 20th and Arch streets has gotten a Hawaiian overhaul.

To prepare for next year’s flower show, with its theme of “Hawaii: Islands of Aloha,” there are now three 20- to 25-foot tall palm trees at the PHS building along with a variety of exotic plants and flowers.

“You can’t grow that here and it’s not that easy to move around,” said Jaffe, discussing how the PHS used crane trucks to move the palm trees, which came from Florida, to the Center City building.

“It was really cool to see these palm trees driving around town,” said Jaffe.

Now until October these pop-up gardens will be available for the public to tour but throughout the summer there are also events scheduled that could help continue children’s learning while schools are out.

The Franklin Institute has partnered with PHS to provide free weekly lessons held every Wednesday in the pop-up park at 20th and Market streets.

As well as these lessons, PHS provides tours of the garden on Wednesdays and Thursdays, where visitors can learn about the production garden here as well as City Harvest — a program that links 45 community gardens across the city with 33 different food cupboards.

The program created about 83,000 pounds of fresh local produce from 2006 to 2010. In a growing season, about 1,000 families in the city utilize the services of City Harvest.

“We want to bring attention to that,” said Jaffe. “And it’s a great opportunity for kids to come see how production beds work.”

In fact, six Center City restaurants — R2L, Square 1682, Table 31, Sampan, Barbuzzo, and Paradiso — have partnered with the PHS to utilize the produce grown at the 20th and Market garden. Jaffe said these eateries have already gotten harvests of peppers, arugula, basil and other produce.

“We’ve had a great response to this place,” said Maitreyi Roy, PHS vice president for programs, as she walked the garden last week. “We wanted to raise the profile for the need to grow locally … It never had a face before in Center City.”

Also, PHS hopes to tap an unexpected resource to create its own labeled products in the fall.

Jaffe said that shortly after opening the park at 20th and Market streets, a swarm of bees took up residence in the garden.

“A swarm of bees just showed up in the garden. Bees are great for a garden,” he said.

The PHS contacted a local beekeeper at Urban Apiaries, and now the Center City garden has three beehives that could be producing honey PHS hopes to bottle and sell in the future.

“We’re looking to produce it soon,” he said.

Last week, small groups of visitors toured the garden taking in the window to nature that has been placed smack-dab in the heart of the concrete jungle of Philadelphia.

Smiling as she toured the garden, Colette Nicoletto — a New Jersey resident who works on the 41st floor of the nearby IBX building — said the garden was a huge improvement over the grassy lot that had been here.

In the past, she said, it could become something of a litter-filled eyesore.

“It was just trash and weeds. It was pretty gross,” Nicoletto said. “But now, it’s so nice to look at and walk around in.” ••

Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com

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