Neighbors rally to protect and reactivate the Old Tennis Court Farm.
by Ellen Wert
Friends of Cloverly Park
The 50 garden plots lie fallow, and weeds have overtaken the pathways between them. Birds are enjoying the bounty of the fruit trees and berry bushes. There are no weekly boxes and bags of fresh, organic vegetables for local food security programs. The gardeners of the Old Tennis Court Farm community garden on the 5400 block of Wissahickon Avenue are sitting this season out.
To be a gardener, however, is to be hopeful, and these gardeners, many of whom are residents of Germantown and East Falls, are hopeful that next season the community garden, which operated from 2009 to 2015, will once again be a hive of activity.
“The community has an extraordinary opportunity to purchase the site and preserve it as productive greenspace,” said Mark Kearney, one of the gardeners, a Germantown resident and co-president of the Friends of Cloverly Park.
With the Friends of Cloverly Park, he and other Old Tennis Court Farm gardeners are working with Natural Lands Trust to acquire the property. “The property owner, Germantown Friends School, entered an agreement with Natural Lands Trust, which gives the community an opportunity to raise the funds to buy the land.”
Time is short, however: the group needs to reach its goal of the full purchase price by late October. “Natural Lands Trust is pursuing public support on our behalf,” explained Kearney, “but the community needs, at a minimum, to match those funds. The property also will need safety and stabilization upgrades.”
From about 1910 to the early 1980s the land, just over half an acre, was part of GFS’s athletic fields. Three asphalt tennis courts covered most of what became the community garden. “Once we replaced the asphalt with 30 tons of compost, the sunny spot was perfect for growing,” said Rob Smith one of the garden’s founders, a West Philadelphia resident with lifelong ties to Germantown.
At the nexus of neighborhoods, including West Central Germantown, Southwest Germantown, and East Falls, the garden attracted “people who might not otherwise meet each other from day to day,” said Kearney.
“The Old Tennis Court Farm provided me with a sunny plot for raising lots of vegetables for eating, canning, freezing and gifting,” said Nancy Pontone of East Falls. “New friendships were made as we worked together to replace an asphalt surface with a green oasis.”
One of the friends she made is Dolores Jones, who lives in Germantown. “I joined in 2009 after attending an outreach meeting. For me it was the group work that was the most energizing. We accomplished our goals together. This built community,” said Jones.
“The garden also provided many residents with necessary resources for day to day living,” said Jeff Templeton, a Germantown committee person and block captain for the 12th Ward, 23rd District. “It was vital to our community as garden space,” said Kelley Collings, a West Germantown block captain.
“Each 12′ by 12′ plot could feed a family for a season for less than the price of a bag of groceries,” said Smith.
“We also reserved eight plots for community service,” said Margaret Lea, a Germantown resident who was among the gardeners, “and between those eight plots and the generosity of individual gardeners, the Old Tennis Court Farm donated thousands of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables over the course of our six seasons.”
The land, once part of Cloverly, the Edward White Clark estate, is contiguous with Cloverly Park, two acres that the Clark family donated to the city at the turn of the last century, evident by the stone wall that lines Wissahickon Avenue.
“If the community can buy the site, it will be protected from development through the land trust,” said Kearney. “It can then be transferred to Parks & Recreation and benefit from public resources. The community would own the garden,” said Kearney.
“Purchase of the land would not only keep it green but would be a benefit to all,“ said Pontone.
“It would be a living metaphor of working and sharing – not only for passing on the skill of growing vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, caring for the land and sharing the bounty with the community but a pathway for conversations that build understanding and promote respect for fellow gardeners and neighbors,” said Jones.
The Old Tennis Court Farm Protection Project is a partnership of the Old Tennis Court Farm gardeners and the Friends of Cloverly Park. Germantown United is serving as fiscal sponsor. To make a contribution go to www.friendsofcloverlypark.org.