Kevin Riordan: Planting time nears

Horses plow the earth in the Garden of Three Points in the Wilbur neighborhood of Trenton. International Charter School of Trenton student Riana Araya, 9, follows behind, with Larry Kidder (center) and Ian Ferry at her side.
Horses plow the earth in the Garden of Three Points in the Wilbur neighborhood of Trenton. International Charter School of Trenton student Riana Araya, 9, follows behind, with Larry Kidder (center) and Ian Ferry at her side. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

Trenton community prepares neighborhood garden.

Posted: April 12, 2013

A couple of teenage pals named Jack and Chester kicked off spring and kicked up some dust in a gritty Trenton neighborhood Tuesday.

The handsome pair of Belgian draft horses pulled a plow that furrowed the earth in the Garden of Three Points, delighting Gene Roberson and others eager for the start of planting season.

"Watermelon, peanuts, field peas, collards, mustard greens, squash," said Roberson, 74, describing typical crops he'll be putting in "around Mother's Day, when the ground'll be good and warm."

The retired state worker, who grew up on a Georgia farm, is among the dozen community gardeners who tend plots in the garden on Chestnut Avenue near Greenwood in the city's Wilbur section.

"This is our oldest and biggest garden - about three-quarters of an acre," said Jim Simon, manager of urban agriculture for Isles Inc.

The nonprofit organization provides human services to 15,000 households annually. Isles also offers seeds and other assistance to 50 school and community gardens citywide.

"In any given summer, these gardens may produce more than 50,000 pounds of food," said Simon, who grew up in Nebraska and, unlike me, was wisely wearing a hat. "We do this plowing event every year. It's a good day to spend outside."

As he spoke, about three dozen third and fourth graders from the nearby International Charter School of Trenton took turns following the plow - a reproduction of one commonly used a century ago - behind Jack and Chester.

"We explain to them that much of the food in the world is produced by a lot of human and animal power," said Pete Watson, director of the Howell Living History Farm, which the Mercer County Park Commission operates in Hopewell Township.

The students rarely if ever have a chance to touch a horse or till the soil, teacher Margie Berrios said.

"Most of these girls would never touch a worm," she said with a laugh. "But today they've got gloves on, and they're learning about composting. And they're having a great time."

The garden has practical - and perhaps, more profound - purposes.

"People are seeking deeper forms of community," said Michael Robertson, a College of New Jersey professor who came to Tuesday's event to do research for a book about 19th-century utopian writers.

The Wilbur neighborhood, just north of the Chambersburg section and hard by the Trenton train station, is far from utopia. There are many well-kept homes, but plenty of boarded-up windows and empty lots, too.

The garden site was left vacant after six duplexes were torn down in the 1970s.

"Drugs were being sold on this lot, and there was a car-repair operation, also illegal, that neighbors were complaining about," said Martin P. Johnson, president and founder of Isles.

He noted that the garden provides not just food but a place for neighbors to gather and get to know one another.

"How do you bring solutions to communities where capital is scarce?" Johnson said. "You can complain about the absence of money. Or you can go out and do stuff."

Indeed. Trenton's sole hotel is on the ropes. A "tomato pie" shop that was a Chambersburg tourist attraction folded two years ago. And that municipal soap-opera star also known as Mayor Tony Mack has been indicted on federal corruption charges.

But in this one modest neighborhood in the state capital, another growing season is about to begin.


Kevin Riordan:

To view video of horses plowing Trenton's Garden of Three Points, go to

www.philly.com/plowing


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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