THE BLOG
09/20/2010 10:37 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On the Road: Philadelphia's Neighborhood Farmers' Markets -- Kensington's Greensgrow

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Philadelphia's Neighborhood Farmers' Markets. The first three posts visited Farmers' Markets at Clark Park, Rittenhouse Square and Headhouse.

As Dorothy said to Toto in the Wizard of Oz, "We're not in Kansas any more."

Greensgrow Farms is in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. As the sign pictured above says, Greensgrow Farms are "Growers of Food, Flowers and Neighborhoods."

On may levels Greensgrow Farms, known simply as Greensgrow, is a stark contrast to previously visited and gentrified farmers' markets of West Philadelphia's Clark Park, Rittenhouse Square and the Headhouse market that sits between Society Hill and Queen Village. First urban farmers' markets are itinerant affairs. Farmers come, pop-up their tents, sell and go home to distant pastures. While Greensgrow has a somewhat traditional farmers' market on Thursdays and Saturdays, Greensgrow is an actual urban farm -- right there in Kensington. There is no going home. Kensington is its home and pasture.

Second, and most significantly, Greensgrow has the explicit agenda to be not just be a part of the Kensington community, but to grow the Kensington community. In addition to the urban farm that grows a wide assortment of vegetables and plants, Greensgrow also organizes area farmers and operates a community-based CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for more than 400 families including low-income families. And the square block that is Greensgrow's home provides the Kensington community a unique and special sense of place and pride.

Greensgrow is located at 2501 East Cumberland Avenue -- about two miles north of Center City. Map.

A drive to Kensington from Center City Philadelphia is like an excursion through the nearly half century of Philadelphia urban development that has occurred since I arrived in West Philadelphia to study architecture at Penn. The Labor Day weekend I arrived from Yonkers, New York, I remember taking a nighttime bus ride. I asked the driver if the bus went "downtown." "You mean Center City," the bus driver corrected, and told me to get in. Some time later I was deposited at a dark and deserted 13th & Market. Welcome to Philadelphia in 1964.

Over time, Center City exploded with light and life to become the vibrant, livable, world-class downtown it is today. And as Center City developed, development rippled outward into the surrounding neighborhoods and continues to ripple today. In those early days, you were an urban pioneer if you lived south of Lombard Street and north of Locust. When I moved off campus in 1966, it was to a small house on Naudain Street between Lombard and South. In 1967 I sold candy at the Theater of Living Arts on South Street where I watched the Jules Fieffer play Little Murders countless times. The Synderman's were trying to make a go of it at the new Works Gallery, across the street. And up the block across 4th Street, Julia and Isiah Zagar, freshly returned from the Peace Corps, had opened the Eyes Gallery. Gradually, development headed south across South Street into Queen Village, Bella Vista on the east and Graduate Hospital west to the Schuykill River. Today my son Noah shares a house with three guys at 9th & League in the heart of the Italian Market.

As you drive north from Center City toward Kensington and Greensgrow, you pass through Old City. In 1973, Old City was considered primarily the restaurant supply district. Hardly a soul lived there. I remember my brother and I walking into National Products on 2nd Street as I prepared for the April opening of my little storefront restaurant I planned to name Frog. National was a major player in the restaurant supply world and no one there seemed to want to wait on two scraggly young men. We left and walked around the corner to Arch Street where we were warmly greeted at Economy Restaurant Supply. Thus began my long and mutually beneficial relationship with Economy.

In 1982, the Painted Bride Art Center moved from South Street, where it had been located since 1969, to 2nd and Vine Street. The Bride's move from South Street to Old City was an important symbolic and practical step in extending Old City toward Northern Liberties. The Continental Martini Bar opened in 1995 at 2nd and Market and represented a pioneering effort to extend the 2nd Street restaurant row on to Market Street and beyond into Old City where artists and galleries had established a beachhead of renewal. Today the Fringe and Live Arts Festival stages performances all over emerging neighborhoods. Artists, galleries and restaurants have long been the pioneers of new neighborhoods.

In 1995, when Frog Commissary moved our production facility to 5th and Fairmount in Northern Liberties, the area was just beginning to develop. Street parking was free and plentiful. Today, chic Northern Liberties' rents and property values rival Queen Village and parking reserved for residents. The Piazza at the old Schmidt's brewery grounds on North 2nd Street stages a substantial Saturday farmers' market. Gentrification continues to push north along East Girard Avenue and on to lower Frankford Avenue into the so-called River Wards. Until the recent past, the only culinary reason to head up river into Port Richmond was Taconelli's extraordinary gas-fired brick oven pizza. Today, Fishtown and Port Richmond are lined with adventuresome new restaurants, in some instances operated by the same folks who were restaurant pioneers in neighboring Northern Liberties. Restaurants include Memphis Taproom, Hot Potato Cafe, Johnny Brenda's and Ida Mae's Bruncherie.

Despite wide areas of decay and abandonment, Kensington is clearly in this path of development. Low rents and property values and relative proximity to Center City have made Kensington an attractive home for young people, artists and new families looking for a community and ample space to live at a price they can afford.

Since colonial times, these same factors -- low rents and proximity to Philadelphia's commercial core -- and the river, have long been advantages of areas flanking our downtown including Kensington. Fishtown was named for the shad fisheries that occupied that neighborhood in early years. With its location between the river and ample trees of Penn's Woods, Kensington became a center of shipbuilding, especially important during the twenty-five year period of the Napoleonic Wars in the late 17th and early 18th Century. Somehow wars create demand for ships. As the materials used for shipbuilding shifted away from wood, iron and steel manufacturing developed. In the 19th Century, the textile industry took hold, especially carpet mills. In 1879, McNeil Laboratories opened and with it began a long history of the pharmaceutical industry in Philadelphia. In 1955, McNeil, developers of Tylenol, was purchased by Johnson & Johnson and in 1961 it moved to Fort Washington.


Stenson Hats was founded in 1865 and by 1886, it was the world's largest hat company. At its peak in the 1920's Stetson Hat employed 5,000 workers at 3rd and Montgomery, just a few blocks from Greensgrow.

By the 1950's, as manufacturers left inner cities, Kensington began a long period of de-industrialization and decline leaving a legacy of abandoned properties and debris. In addition, in the 1960's, construction of I-95 cut a wide gash of desolation into the river neighborhoods.

It is against this backdrop that we marvel at pockets of Kensington today. In 1985, the New Kensington Community Development Corporation was formed to address housing needs in the community. In 1995, the NKCDC broadened its scope to include neighborhood quality of life issues. They created the Frankford Avenue Arts Corridor and developed the Coral Street Arts House -- consistent with the successful strategy of leveraging art and artists with emerging communities.

In 1997, Mary Seton Conboy and Tom Sereduk started Greensgrow Farms -- a expansive name for a reclaimed brownfield that covers the city block along East Cumberland Avenue. Shortly after starting, Sereduk headed for greener pastures while Conboy literally dug in. Conboy is the Wizard of Greensgrow. But, unlike the Wizard of Oz, who hid behind a curtain to protect against discovery of his un-wizardly ways, Conboy is the real deal. You can learn more about Conboy in this 2008 Philadelphia Magazine profile. As Conboy says, "abandoned land is only abandoned if we chose to leave it that way."

Welcome to Greensgrow.

The farm house -- and office -- is a rowhouse behind the gardens and across the street.

Tomatoes and arugula grow in raised beds. The actual soil over which Greensgrow sits is not suitable for growing so plants are grown in containers and vegetables in raised beds in soil trucked in from New Jersey.

Other green houses provide safe harbor to nursery plants.

It's lush nursery plants run the gamut from sun to shade loving and plants that grow tall outdoors to plants that prefer a comfy window sill. In the tub next to the solar panel are plants that grow in water.

Greensgrow is an herb-lovers paradise with benches filled with marjoram, Thai basil, varieties of thyme and chives. This is a literal field of peppermint.

Greensgrow challenges our notion of what is a farm? At its most basic, a farm consists of something nourishing to nuture and grow, a place to grow it, water, nutrients, heat and sunshine. You don't actually need soil. Soil simply provides a medium to anchor the plants roots and convey water and nourishment. Hydroponic gardening accomplishes this without soil. In its early years Greensgrow survived by producing hydroponic field greens for Philadelphia restaurants. While Cumberland Avenue lacks the bucolic rolling hills of Lancaster County, the same blue skies and summer sun that shines on Lancaster County shines on Greensgrow. Of course, you need farmers to make a farm. Greensgrow is tended by a core of dedicated employees and volunteers who can take convenient public transportation to and from the farm. Greensgrow Farms is a unique farm in a unique urban setting playing an important role in the daily life of its community.

The Greensgrow Farmers' Market operates on Thursdays from 2 to 7 PM and Saturdays from 10 AM to 3 PM. In addition, the nursery is open Tuesdays through Sunday. Check out the Greensgrow website for hours.

Every farm needs a farm cat and at Greensgrow, it's Blanche du Cat.

Shoppers avail themselves of red wagons.

This particular week at Greensgrow included special guests at the Thursday Farmers' Market -- J.D.s Hot Sauce and Bennett Composting. If you plan on bringing the kids after school to the Thursday Farmers' Market, they can enjoy the 4 PM Story Time while you enjoy your shopping. The kids may or may not enjoy the Free 6 PM Worm Composting Workshop. Saturday's market's special guest was the 35 Springs Fruit Farm -- the same spectacular fruit and vegetable farm that hangs out at the Headhouse Farmers' Market on Sundays.

Area farmers and other providers supplement Greensgrow's home grown produce to create a complete Farmers' Market experience. It is more modest in size than many urban farmers' markets, but it has pretty much whatever you might want in a setting unlike any urban farmers' markets.

At Greensgrow, your farm stand helpers are likely to have the tattoos and streaked hair as befits the youthful tone of the pioneering neighborhood.

The vegetables look just like vegetables at other neighborhood farmers' markets.

The fruit is just as fresh and juicy.

An heirloom tomato purchased in Kensington and dressed with a little olive oil and sea salt is just as yummy as its uptown Society Hill cousins.

Tossed on to the grill, these purple eggplant are as luscious as those sold along Walnut Street's swanky Rittenhouse Row.

On the other hand, these Serrano peppers have no more kick by virtue of their tougher neighborhood than their Clark Park brethren .

Growing corn needs an extraordinary amount of space not available at Greensgrow. So fresh-picked corn is provided by one of the participating market farmer.

At Greensgrow, you can have your fresh-picked corn roasted to order at $1 an ear. But it's not just roasted. Greensgrow's fresh picked farm market corn is slathered in a yummy mix of mayonnaise, butter, pepper flakes, chiles, salt and lime and then slowly grill-roasted to perfection over a low-moderate heat.

It will cost you $2 for Greensgrow to roast your peppers on the spot -- but you get a free roast from their hand-cranked gas-fired roaster with the purchase of $5 worth of peppers.

Greensgrow boasts the vegan North Port Fishington Cookie Factory. The name is a mashup of the lower northeast neighborhoods of Philadelphia -- Northern Liberties, Port Richmond, Fishtown and Kensington.

Lovingly made dips and spreads, including fresh pesto are available at another stand.

While yet another stand offers a potpourri of pickles, honey, garlic, tomatoes and eggs.

The Kensington Community Food Co-op is an evolving member owned grocery serving the emerging Kensington community.

In addition to produce, Greensgrow has a small selection of meats, cheese, yogurt and more under the canopy of one of its green houses.

It's nothing fancy. Just good.

Greensgrow also utilizes a local church kitchen to produce assorted prepared products. Here is early season Strawberry Rhubarb Jam.

To round out the farm line-up are chickens who seek a little shade under a plant bench with a leafy roof.

The Greensgrow farm truck is provided by Subaru, an enthusiastic sponsor of Greensgrow.

So, why should you pay a visit to Greensgrow?

As I have tried to make clear in each of my posts about farm neighborhoods and neighborhood farmers' markets, each neighborhood contributes its unique personality to the experience. This is no less so -- and perhaps more so with Greensgrow by virtue of it being a permanent fixture in a neighborhood in transition on the way to a brighter future. So, head out East Girard Avenue, on to Frankford and swing on over to Greensgrow. On the way home, pick a Fishtown or Port Richmond restaurant and have a Thursday evening dinner or Saturday lunch. While you're at it, watch a neighborhood grow. I promise you will enjoy yourself. Then head home and share the fruits and vegetables of your adventure with friends and family...At Home.

Coming Attractions
In the pipeline are On the Road and On the Table posts from Hudson Valley and the South Fork of Long Island. Also look for a post about my visit to the legendary Blooming Hill Farm and their monthly farm dinner created by David Gould of Brooklyn's Roman's restaurant. It was at that dinner that I enjoyed perhaps my culinary highlight of summer, Gould's Squash Soup. I re-created that soup for my brother's birthday dinner and will share the recipe with you. Also, this weekend I am headed to Nova Scotia and the Halifax Farmers' Market -- the oldest farmers' market in North America.

Coming Events
I have a tentative plan to visit Laurel Hill Gardens in Chestnut Hill on October 16th. This is a make-up for the July event that was canceled on account of rain on Saturday and then cancellation of the re-scheduled Sunday event, due to the death of a dear friend that Saturday evening. Details as I know them.

On Saturday evening October 23rd I have been invited as a guest to Mt. Airy USA's annual Guess Who's Coming to Dinner event.

I am also on Gershman Y's Fall Arts & Culture schedule with an event on December 2 at the Residences at Two Liberty Place. Details.

I continue to look for opportunities to talk about the At Home Project -- my efforts to increase home entertaining. If you know of appropriate venues, please pass along my interest.

Buy At Home Today
If you are a blog reader and have not yet purchased At Home by Steve Poses: A Caterer's Guide to Cooking & Entertaining, either for yourself or as a gift, I encourage you to do so. At Home is available online or at either the Joseph Fox Bookshop at 1724 Sansom Street in Philadelphia and Coopermarket at 302 Levering Mill Road in Bala Cynwd.