The loss of Camden Children's Garden would be both a stunning blow to kids and the spurning of a national trend.

Posted: February 02, 2013

The endangered Camden Children's Garden is one of only a handful of public gardens in the United States dedicated wholly to children.

"It has always been the one that others looked to," said Paul Redman, director of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, which has indoor and outdoor children's gardens.

Virtually all botanical gardens are doing what Longwood has done. They're incorporating areas or features or programming for the younger set because they recognize it's critical to connect kids to nature. (It's also good for business.)

So the potential loss of most of the four acres now being used by the Camden Children's Garden as growing space and "horticultural playground" dismays many who believe in the value of gardening in children's lives. They view it not just as a setback for Camden families, but also as a repudiation of a national trend that has been gathering momentum for two decades.

"There's a lot of energy around children's gardens and gardening with children right now," said Tom Underwood, executive director of the American Horticultural Society (AHS) in Alexandria, Va., "but it's expanding beyond the initial connect-with-the-outdoors."

Now, Underwood said, children's gardens are getting a huge bump from the "healthy food and growing your own" movement. Both have long been the mission at the Camden garden, whose founders, Mike Devlin and his wife, Valerie Frick, were honored by the AHS in 2008.

"When you see again the passion and the work that's done there, the garden is really part of the fabric of the city. To see that lost would really be a shame," Underwood said.

The garden has been given till March 31 to vacate more than three of its four acres, land the state has targeted for economic development, possibly by the privately owned Adventure Aquarium next door. The Camden City Garden Club, the Devlin-Frick creation that runs the garden, would be allowed to lease office and storage space and a single lean-to greenhouse where 50,000 seedlings are grown for community gardeners around the city each spring.

Devlin says the loss of space would mean "we would not be able to function as we have. We would be irreversibly crippled."

"It's distressing," said Casey Sclar, director of the 500-member American Public Gardens Association, based at Longwood.

Sclar, an entomologist, cites another function of children's gardens, one that's near to his heart - to introduce kids to science in the natural world.

"Great institutions like the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Cleveland Botanical Garden . . . have all made very targeted investments in . . . at-risk youth to get them involved with nature and science."

The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx has two children's gardens, one for growing crops and one that teaches subjects like geology.

Studies show that both types benefit kids, according to Jamie Boyer, the garden's director of children's education and a Ph.D. in biology. Besides learning about things like rock formations and raising tomatoes, children practice life skills: how to work as a team, follow directions, be disciplined and organized.

"If kids don't have these spaces or the programming around it, I can only imagine what that will mean for the future of our youth," Boyer said.

"One thing's for sure. Where they don't have that space, it's 'sorry, you lose.' "

That thought also bothers Domenic Vitiello, an urban gardening expert who teaches city planning and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He calls the Camden Children's Garden "arguably the most important destination for Camden residents and the most public function for Camden residents on the waterfront."

In its early years, when admission to the garden and aquarium was combined on one ticket and before state subsidies were cut, the garden saw up to 625,000 visitors per year; that figure is now between 150,000 and 200,000.

Besides the garden and the aquarium, attractions along the Delaware River in Camden include the Susquehanna Bank Center for entertainment, the Battleship New Jersey, and Riversharks minor-league baseball at Campbell's Field.

Even if Devlin and Frick, who opened the garden in 1999, were to find someplace to start anew, Vitiello doubted that the site would be as accessible to residents as the current site.

"For communities that are poor in the United States, people get out of their communities less and are also, for plenty of good reasons in Camden, afraid to go to other neighborhoods that they don't know.

"Yes, it's dangerous. It's Camden. We all know those statistics. I think the Camden Children's Garden is a safe space for kids," he said.

Devlin's group has also helped set up 120 community gardens across the city. Every year, those gardeners get seeds and plants grown at the Children's Garden, along with fertilizer, fencing, mushroom compost, wood chips, and advice.

The garden employs 30 people, most from Camden, and runs a youth employment and training program. It hosts education programs for Camden schoolchildren, and staff builds and maintains gardens at schools.

Devlin said the garden was in the midst of new grant programs to transform community gardeners into produce-selling farmers and to sell fresh produce in neighborhoods. Those, and other grants, would be lost if the garden were disbanded.

The garden still plans to mount an exhibit at the 2013 Philadelphia Flower Show (March 2 to 10) and to open for the season on March 29. Devlin said he was exploring legal action that could keep the garden open past the March 31 state deadline.

Which would make Kim Florio of Collingswood, among others, very happy.

Florio took her 3-year-old daughter, Violet, to two workshops at the garden in 2012, one on trees, another on birds. "It gave her an introduction to healthy living and nature and just being aware of the natural surroundings," Florio said, calling the experience "the opposite of the electronic world that kids are into now."


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

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