Horticulture Center blooming under volunteer's care

Pamela Sodi works in the Hummingbird Garden behind the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center. She and other volunteers hope to restore nine small gardens and fill pots and a flower bed at the entrance for National Public Gardens Day May 10.
Pamela Sodi works in the Hummingbird Garden behind the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center. She and other volunteers hope to restore nine small gardens and fill pots and a flower bed at the entrance for National Public Gardens Day May 10. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: April 27, 2013

Volunteers make the world go 'round - or so it seems when Pamela Sodi is the volunteer and the "world" is the Horticulture Center in West Fairmount Park.

With help from a handful of others - one regular volunteer and occasional others - Sodi is working to restore nine small, neglected gardens behind the center and fill the pots and a flower bed at the entrance.

And she wants to do it all by May 10, which is National Public Gardens Day, a tradition that dates to 2009 and is intended to raise awareness about the importance of the nation's botanical gardens and arboretums.

"My dream is to make the gardens beautiful for all to enjoy," Sodi says.

But here's the thing: Despite a horticultural history in this location spanning almost 140 years, the Horticulture Center - with 27 acres, a dozen small gardens, two greenhouses for floral display and one for plant propagation - remains unknown to many in its own back yard.

Lisa Bonitatibus of Center City didn't know the place existed until she signed up for a green roof class in early 2012 given by a Penn State master gardener - and wandered into one of the greenhouses after class.

"In the middle of winter, you can come with your book and sit on a bench and read and it smells like a tropical garden. It's wonderful, one of the best-kept secrets around," says Bonitatibus, now a volunteer with Sodi.

Some have been in on the secret for years: Penn State master gardeners tend the center's butterfly and vegetable gardens, and blind and visually impaired volunteers have a Hands-On Garden there, too.

But most visitors need to follow signs to the center, at North Horticultural Drive and Montgomery Avenue. The original building on the site was Horticultural Hall, which was part of the blockbuster 1876 Centennial Exposition in brand-new Fairmount Park.

The hall was intended to be a permanent part of the park, but weather and neglect took a heavy toll on its indoor botanical conservatory and outdoor formal gardens. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel finished the job, and the structure was torn down in 1955.

Its replacement, called "the Hort Center" by all, dates to the Bicentennial in 1976. The years since - and the city's fiscal problems - have been difficult, to put it mildly.

By the time Sodi came on the scene in 2007, many of the once-beautiful flower beds were overrun with English ivy, Japanese knotweed, and goutweed.

Sodi first tackled the Hummingbird Garden. In just four months, she painstakingly removed 200 pounds of weeds by hand. "I waged war and I won," she now declares.

This year, for her ramped-up restoration efforts, Sodi bought bougainvillea vine and dahlia tubers, crocosmia and calla lily bulbs, all nectar-rich and attractive to hummers. And she set up shop in the Hort Center's greenhouses, propagating plants for all the gardens on her list, but especially hummingbird-friendly ones like asclepias, Texas sage, and zinnias.

Yes, zinnias.

"No book will tell you that a hummingbird loves zinnias, and I don't know if they're going after nectar or bugs, but they love zinnias," says Sodi, a West Philadelphia resident who grew up on a farm in Stockton, N.J., and has been a farmer herself.

She's also been a paralegal and the owner of Internet, real estate rehab, and marketing businesses. Over time, she taught herself about plants and now has a garden landscaping company.

All of which informs her work at the Hort Center. Besides the Hummingbird Garden, Sodi's beds will showcase lavender, roses, tropicals, plants of contrasting colors, and others. The plots range from 12 by 20 feet to 30 by 30 feet.

It's a lot of work - and expense. This year, Sodi spent $2,000 of her own money on plants and materials. She did this because park dollars and staff are stretched to the limit.

"Knowing this, I made a commitment to use my own resources and give of my own time," she says.

Michael O'Brien, Hort Center supervisor for the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees Fairmount Park, praises Sodi's "intensity about the gardens" and laments that he can't do more.

"We help her out when we can, but we're always behind. We'll never catch up," he says.

Since 2010, a concession contract with Starr Events at the center has generated $485,000 for the city, of which $128,000 has been directed back to the center for new heat pumps, cleaning services, and other needs.

Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of Parks and Recreation, says the Stephen Starr-catered galas are raising public exposure to the center, in addition to much-needed cash.

"I've been there any number of times when people say, 'Oh yeah, I was here for a wedding and wanted to come back' or 'I stumbled on this. Could I have my daughter's wedding here?' " says Focht, a landscape architect.

For Sodi, the profile gets raised one volunteer at a time. "We're doing the impossible, repairing many years of neglect in one season," she says, "so even if someone comes for two hours and I never see them again, it's a tremendous plus."

More information

The Fairmount Park Horticulture Center is at North Horticultural Drive and Montgomery Avenue, in West Fairmount Park. For information, call 215-685-0096.

The center and grounds are open seven days a week, except on holidays. Greenhouse hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., grounds 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

To volunteer or donate plants or seeds for the center's garden restoration project, contact Pamela Sodi at pamela.sodigardens@gmail.com.

For information about National Public Gardens Day on May 10, go to www.nationalpublicgardensday.org.

Many public gardens and arboretums in the Philadelphia region are participating. Depending on the garden, they're offering special programming, events, discounts, and in some cases, free admission for the day.

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


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