So You Think You Can Plant

Gardener Eileen Gargano (left) with judge Renee Kalandar. She drapes her plants in chicken wire to keep a posse of feral cats from turning her Pennsport garden into a litter box.
Gardener Eileen Gargano (left) with judge Renee Kalandar. She drapes her plants in chicken wire to keep a posse of feral cats from turning her Pennsport garden into a litter box.

The City Gardens Contest will be the judge of that. A toasty visit to four container-garden contenders.

Posted: July 22, 2011

Most gardeners fear judgment. They stress over weeds, messy borders, plants past their prime.

How strange, then, to find people who invite scrutiny, which is what 300 Philadelphians are doing right now in the City Gardens Contest, a summer tradition since 1975.

Here are the four contenders for best container garden on a deck. OK, so it's not the Olympics. It's fun.

Vanessa Gutin, 31, runs the production office for movies that come to town; boyfriend Jason Currie, 33, does set dressing. For the last six years, they've shared the second-floor apartment of a three-story brownstone on South Broad Street.

When the judges arrive, Currie's on Long Island working a TV show called Royal Pains, on the USA Network, so Gutin cheerfully handles the "tour."

This means four volunteer judges are wedged onto a 7-by-11-foot deck off the living room with 65 potted plants, a composter, a cafe table, two chairs, and overhead lights.

Clipboards in hand, they poke and pivot. They note balloon flowers in a bucket and a dwarf lilac in a pot. They assign points for plant variety, suitability, and maintenance, according to guidelines set by the contest sponsor, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. (Winners will be announced Sept. 24.)

"Have the containers been weeded? Are flowers deadheaded? What has been done to combat problems of insects or diseases?"

The cue sheet ends with: "Is this a place you would like to spend time?"

The judges' body language shouts yes! They're charmed to learn that Currie collects seeds around the neighborhood - morning glories came from the post office - and swaps cuttings with family and friends.

They marvel at the ingenuity of plant shelves made of repurposed wood from old movie sets, the 10-gallon plastic bucket serving as composter, the "irrigation system" rigged with a bucket of water from the bathtub, a sump pump, and watering wand.

"Doesn't take much to maintain, just water and a little love," says Gutin, who, on this hot, actually hottest, day of summer, offers up "sun tea" made of dried herbs and flowers from last year's garden.

"Delightful," says judge Linda Grimwade of Bala Cynwyd.

Off we go. The car dashboard records 10:50 a.m. - and 97 degrees.

Homemaker Eileen Gargano, 57, and her family have lived in this brownstone in Pennsport for three decades. Today, despite the weather, a pot of "gravy" simmers on the stove, infusing the house with an unbearably tempting tomato fragrance.

(How many points for that?)

Gargano's deck is 9 by 15 feet and features an ancient sink scavenged by her house-rehabbing nephew. It's planted with a dusty-rose cordyline ("spike plant"), nifty ornamental peppers, and verbena. She also has climbing roses, hostas, peonies, and hydrangea.

Gargano confides she has had to drape her plants in chicken wire to keep a posse of feral cats from turning her garden into a litter box. "I'm thinking of barbed wire," she jokes.

"Ironic, isn't it?" suggests judge Sandy Grimwade, Linda's husband. "The biggest problem in this urban garden is wildlife."

With that, out comes the iced tea and Pellegrino, cookies, and strawberries. The sun tea is history.

It's all part of the drill.

Gardeners are urged to "extend a little Philadelphia hospitality to the judges," according to PHS' Flossie Narducci, but some go a little crazy. Like the contestant who served BBQ chicken at 9 a.m. or the one who baked a large cupcake "sunflower."

What the heck. No one's running for office here. Bring on the bribes!

By 11:21 a.m., we're on the road again. The car is, thankfully, air-conditioned.

Affable Ben Brandoff, 31 and decked out in shorts and Pink Floyd T-shirt, has iced tea in the fridge, but the judges are still full of Pellegrino.

Soon they're inching around the 6-by-10-foot deck and larger yard, which is all garden, behind Brandoff's early-19th-century house in Fishtown.

They're fascinated by his "garden art" - old bicycle wheels, dented cymbals (his roommate's a drummer), rustic bamboo trellis - and the forest of tomato and basil plants.

It was not always so lush out here, says Brandoff, who leases equipment to commercial vendors for a living.

Soon after buying the house in 2009, he discovered that his predecessors used to troll the streets on trash day. It all ended up in the yard, where crabgrass eventually covered it up.

When Brandoff tried to start a garden, he says, "I'd dig down about six inches and hit concrete or pieces of junk." So he built raised beds, filled them with compost, mulch, and wood chips, and planted seedlings.

Brandoff, a Bala Cynwyd native who learned to garden from his mother, hints that peer pressure nudged him into this contest. "You never really think you're good enough or had it together enough," he says, "but I got that extra push from friends and my mom."

What else are friends, and moms, for?

Next stop: the Far Northeast.

It's 12:20 p.m. Temperature reading: Don't ask.

Jackie Ruczynski, a retired secretary for the city school district, is waiting outside her home near Franklin Mills mall when the judges arrive.

Up to the second floor they go, out to the deck, which is a generous 12 by 34 feet. Funny, nobody's looking at the copper fountain Ruczynski's husband gave her 15 years ago, her prized dwarf butterfly bush or rosemary, or the sedum that her late mother nicknamed "the never-die plant."

No. All eyes are focused on the huge aboveground pool in the backyard. It's so clean. It's so big. It's so full of water!

Ruczynski, 64, won second prize last year and made a point of checking out photos of the first-prize winner at the awards ceremony in September. "I thought her garden was pretty, but I liked mine better," she sniffs.

But the winner had evergreens. Ruczynski had none. This year, she added evergreens.


Hear Vanessa Gutin describe how she and boyfriend Jason Currie got started on their tiny second-story deck, and see Ben Brandoff's perfect party venue in Fishtown at philly.com/gardencontest.


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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