Rowhouse-garden gurus: Students share tips for joining the cult of cultivation

Tyreek Harris tends to the school's vegetable garden.
Tyreek Harris tends to the school's vegetable garden.
Posted: April 30, 2009

PETER Sztenderowicz is the pepper guy at the Walter B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences. It is hard to resist the old nursery rhyme about Peter Piper picking a peck of peppers when Sztenderowicz talks tenderly about tending them.

"I've been growing peppers in the backyard since I can remember, since my father is an arborist and we were always outside," said the junior at Roxborough's one-of-a-kind agricultural high school. "It doesn't take much room and you can have so many different kinds - green peppers, red peppers, hot peppers - through the spring and summer."

For their display at this spring's Philadelphia Flower Show, Saul High School students made a South Philadelphia rowhouse garden. Now that planting season is well under way, several students took time out from their landscaping class with teacher Barbara Brown recently to give advice on the wide variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs even a constricted rowhouse backyard could provide.

"One of the things to remember is that a lot of plants can be taught to go vertical," said Tyreek Harris, a senior from Southwest Philadelphia. "You only need a trellis or a small cage to have tomato plants go up straight. A few plants and you will have more than enough for the family or the neighborhood."

The students mapped out ideas for a garden that would be about 6 feet deep and 15 or so feet wide. The first thing every good rowhouse backyard gardener should do, according to senior Jane Gagliardi, from Roxborough, is, just like a rural farmer, till the soil.

"Regular potting soil is just fine, or even starting with whatever soil is out back. Make sure there no weeds and just start turning it over," she said. "Maybe you don't have pitchfork or a rake, but that shouldn't stop you. If you have nothing else, use your hands."

Harris said that the soil should be airy, a little loose, and look a dark, rich brown.

"You could get a little compost or fertilizer," he said. "But, really, most soil will work just fine on its own."

There is no reason to worry about being too close to a house or cement, said Brown. She said that it is unlikely anyone would garden near the street, which would be a problem only if salt trucks had come by in the winter.

The Saul students said rowhouse gardeners shouldn't think small when it comes to selecting plants - that anything local in the supermarket can usually work in the back yard.

"Sure, it is too late now to do carrots or spring lettuce, so save that for next year," said Gagliardi. "But the local garden shop or nursery should have seeds for everything."

It also does not take a lot of room for most vegetables to grow. Sztenderowicz said that a general rule of thumb is to plant things about twice as deep as the seed is big and to leave about 6 inches to a foot between each plant.

The high school landscapers said there's no need to stick with just the common plants. For instance, they recommended the edible flower nasturtium. "It is yellow and spicy and looks like a lily pad on the vine," said Harris. "It is also a pretty plant, and it is always good to have a good-looking garden. It makes you want to do it more."

The student gardeners said even vegetables that have to be buried are not out of the question in a rowhouse garden. Onions and radishes thrive even in close quarters.

"With radishes especially, put the seeds in the ground and water every day," said Sztenderowicz. "Once you see the leaves come up, it is likely the radish is getting ready. Soon after, the head of the radish will pop over the surface and it is ready to be picked."

But he suggested keeping a watch on onions. "You really don't want to let them flower too much because then they take over the garden, spreading out over the other plants. Pick them as soon as the tops come up."

They also suggested backyard herb plants like chives or basil that everyone in the neighborhood might use in cooking.

"Even if you don't want them right in the garden, you could plant them in pots nearby or on a window sill, to save space," said Gagliardi, who will be going to Montgomery County Community College next year. She suggested planting sunflowers, not just for the beauty, but for the seeds. "Dry them out and roast them and eat them just like you would when you buy them at Wawa. Do it yourself."

Harris said to make sure to rotate crops, just like a farmer would, yearly.

"Insects will be leaving their eggs next to what they might want to eat," said Harris. "You can fool them by putting, say, eggplant there this year and tomatoes there next year."

That is the main reason to have a garden, the students said. Everything exists in the supermarket, even fresh and organic stuff at a farm market, but there is a sense of satisfaction with a backyard garden.

"Plants are all good," said Harris, who wants to study landscape architecture in college. "Give tomatoes good sunlight. Water just about daily but only to keep things wet to the touch. It's pretty easy and it's fun to see what you grew go on the kitchen table." *

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