Camden Children's Garden plants at Flower Show despite uncertain harvest

Vidal Rivera and DeAndre Dixon, both of Camden, set up the Camden Children's Garden exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show. They have both worked at the garden for almost a decade. The garden faces an uncertain future.
Vidal Rivera and DeAndre Dixon, both of Camden, set up the Camden Children's Garden exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show. They have both worked at the garden for almost a decade. The garden faces an uncertain future. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 02, 2013

The name given this year's British-theme Philadelphia Flower Show is "Brilliant!," but the mood at the Camden Children's Garden display this week was anything but bright and sunny - more like cloudy with a chance of despair.

As workers set up the fanciful, 320-square-foot exhibit, with a willow tunnel, shed, birdhouses, and dreamy vegetable garden and fruit trees, they couldn't help worrying about the future of the Children's Garden, which recently was ordered by the state to leave its waterfront site next to the Adventure Aquarium.

"I'll be crushed," said Jeff Clarke, a 56-year-old former meat packer, who was supervising the installation at the Convention Center and who runs many of the Children's Garden's school programs.

After 17 years, this may be the garden's last appearance at the Flower Show, where the small nonprofit has won a couple of best-of-shows, exposed children to a world they might never know in Camden, and hosted exhibits of up to 1,500 square feet.

It scaled back three years ago after losing $625,000 in annual state funding, said executive director Mike Devlin.

"It was right after Christie took office. At his inauguration, he gave us an award as one of 20 heroes of New Jersey, and two months later he took away our money. We got the letter during the Flower Show," said Devlin.

Last month, the Treasury Department told the group to remove attractions, including the amusement rides, gazebo, giant dinosaur, and butterfly house, that have entertained children since 1999 from three of its four acres by March 31.

The eviction was put on hold after citizens protested and a state legislator offered to mediate.

While not completely shutting it down - the Children's Garden would be allowed to rent offices and a greenhouse - the decree essentially would dismantle a widely loved site.

The aquarium, owned by the theme park operator Herschend Family Entertainment, wants to take over the site and expand its operation.

The Children's Garden, which also runs community and backyard gardens and school programs in a city considered one of the worst food deserts in the country, is fighting to survive.

Devlin said it was unclear how the state came to own the property, since it was developed by the Camden nonprofit Cooper's Ferry Development Corp. along with the former New Jersey State Aquarium and Camden City Garden Club Inc.

The state has declined to say how it acquired the land. Devlin said the Treasury Department produced a document dated June 30, 1999 - the day before the garden opened - in which the property was signed over to the state for $1.

"No one on City Council knew about that,"said Devlin, a former Camden councilman. He maintains that the state did not file claim to the title until March 2011.

Treasury spokesman William Quinn did not return a call for comment.

Though the state has not disclosed the aquarium's plans, they say the planned expansion would enhance the city's economic development.

Devlin thinks the Children's Garden already does that. The organization's 90 backyard and 120 community gardens produced $2.3 million worth of fruits and vegetables in 2012, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.

After the Flower Show ends, growing season starts, and the garden will give out about 50,000 plants. Annually it gives away more than 200,000 plants.

"I see that as economic development. I don't know if the state would agree with me," Devlin said.

Though their entry is scaled down and they are not in competition this year, just being at the show is empowering for the young gardeners who have been setting up and will staff the show, he said.

As the crew planted red, white, and blue Gerber daisies at the Flower Show, Clarke said he worried that without the work he and others do, Camden's children would suffer.

"It tears your heart out to see some kids in Camden and their lack of healthy food," he said.

"I worked 20 years in meatpacking and I hated every day. I love every day now. I feel like I make a difference."


Contact Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com, 856-779-3812 or follow @kathyboccella on Twitter.

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