Children's Garden will bloom again at Flower Show

Vidal Rivera, a 21-year-old boxer, paints his portrait on a fence post to be used in the exhibit.
Vidal Rivera, a 21-year-old boxer, paints his portrait on a fence post to be used in the exhibit. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 28, 2014

In a tent outside the Camden Children's Garden, brightly painted fence posts with portraits of children lie waiting to be assembled and erected around a garden of ripe fruits and vegetables.

The scene is a vibrant, 400-square-foot self-portrait of a city often cast in shades of gray, and one that the Children's Garden is eager to showcase at the Philadelphia Flower Show, running from Saturday through March 9.

The garden, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, will mark its 17th appearance at the Flower Show and first since the state attempted to evict the group from its waterfront home last spring.

"Our theme is, coming back. We're here and we're coming back stronger," said executive director Mike Devlin.

In January 2013, the state, which claims ownership of the four-acre property, gave the Children's Garden until March 2013 to move its possessions out with the intention of transferring the space to the neighboring Adventure Aquarium.

A legal battle ensued, which the garden appears to have won.

"I haven't heard anything since April, when the Treasury said they were backing down," Devlin said. "I'm confident. We have the law on our side."

Taking on the state took money and drained resources from the nonprofit in a tough decade that included a severing of ties with the aquarium in 2004 and the loss of state funding in 2010. The garden had 100,000 visitors last year, compared with 625,000 at its peak.

"It wasn't easy," Devlin said. "The governor and his administration were not easy to go up against, but we're more tenacious, we're from Camden."

Negotiations have been going on for years to try and get the garden to move. A spokesman for the Treasury Department said the agency had "nothing new to report on the issue."

The privately run aquarium announced in October it would bring a 300-foot-tall, $5 million observation tower to the waterfront. Devlin and Kevin Keppel, executive director of Adventure Aquarium, said they are meeting to explore possible future partnerships.

The Flower Show exhibit, "Fun With Art in a Children's Community Garden," aligns with the show's overall theme, "ARTiculture: Where Art Meets Horticulture."

The painted fence posts were created by students from Sharp Elementary School, LEAP Academy, City Invincible Charter School, Bridge of Peace Community Church, and Camden Boxing Academy.

The garden's 30th season opens with a garden party March 29. Before then, the small staff is busy refreshing the look of current exhibits and preparing a new one that will showcase regional artifacts, from Native American arrowheads to original RCA equipment.

"We want people to have the experience they had when they came the first day we opened," said communications director Andrew Adams.

Many members of the staff started coming to the garden as children, participated in the grow labs, which teach students about agriculture and nutrition, and returned to work full-time.

The garden also runs 130 community gardens across 27 acres in the city, which does not have a major supermarket and large parts of which have been federally designated as food deserts. A University of Pennsylvania study estimated that 15 percent of city residents get fruits and vegetables from the gardens, which grow an estimated $2.3 million in fresh produce each year.

Vidal Rivera, 21, got a summer job at the garden at age 16 through his boxing coach.

Rivera, who has been to the Golden Gloves national tournament twice, painted a fence post of himself wearing boxing gloves and a pair of boxing shorts decorated with vegetables.

"If I could find a fabric [with a vegetable print], I would really wear it," he said of the shorts. "I have it in my plans when I turn pro, to have a pair of trunks in support of the garden."

The exhibit is the only one from Camden and will be positioned near the entrance to the Flower Show.

"Everybody just put a little something in here, and I love that it's not all perfect," said Rhea Krylikowski, a member of Bridge of Peace Community Church who also works at the garden. "Everybody's different, so all our work's in there reflecting us, reflecting Camden."

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