Editor's Note: 10 Questions is a new weekly feature on NBC10.com. If you know someone who we should profile, please email us.
On a block of land once dubbed uninhabitable you’ll find one of the greenest places in the city -- a series of greenhouses and above ground planters where food grows. Started 15 years ago by then chef Mary Seton Corboy in her search for a tasty tomato, Greensgrow has grown from a small hydroponic lettuce growing facility into a full-scale, year-round urban farm producing plants for sale and vegetables for eating that are sold not only to local restaurants and CSA kitchens but in trucks that drive around West Philly and Camden, N.J. bringing fresh vegetables to communities that need them most. They have even opened a commercial kitchen where they teach everything from butchering to canning. And on Saturdays people come from near and far for their artisan farmer's market.
The man in charge is David Prendergast, a larger than life (both physically and socially) farmer who has called the three-quarter of an acre of land on E Cumberland street in Kensington home for the past six years. Prendergast, who spent his youth pulling weeds in his father’s farm, returned to farming after years working in an office.
On a recent rainy day the manager at the non-profit urban farm sat down with NBC10.com to share his story and give some tips on how even you can grow anything you want no matter where you live.
What got you started in gardening?
I guess my father. When I was a little kid, we lived in Bucks County, we had a half-acre little farm that my father grew our lettuce and vegetables with. And I hated it, just because every Saturday and Sunday I was stuck weeding all the time. So I dreaded it!
As I got older I said ‘Hey, it’s not so bad,’ it’s actually very relaxing, very methodical, it’s sort of a sanctuary. It just relaxes you and it just clears your head and makes everything else go away.
What then drew you back to gardening?
I always liked playing in the mud, I always liked playing and making all these trails and my mother always used to yell at me because I would always make all these water slides out of mud. And she would always scream and yell at me for doing that. I just always liked having my hands in the dirt.
I was actually a director for PECO during 9/11 and it just kind of blew me out of the water that I was stuck there for a day… I wasn’t allowed to leave, I was locked in the building on lockdown and I just kind of got discouraged about being in that environment.
So I left that end and got a job with the New Kensington Community Development Corporation running their land-use department. I ran their garden center for them and I was in charge of greening 200 lots along Frankford Avenue. It just took a lot of blight out of the neighborhood itself. I lived here, I wanted to give back, it was a great opportunity for me to get my hands in the mud, plant trees, lay grass seed, maintain lots and just give the neighborhood an oasis where they could go.
I always enjoyed flowers and plants and always enjoyed having my garden look really great. So it was always in there, I just didn’t actually do it for a living until I was 38.
What is Greensgrow, what is the mission, how did it get started?
Greensgrow is the mission of our founder Mary Seton Corboy. Her goal was to start out growing a nice tomato. She was chef for a country club and she could never get good produce -- it always had a really bland taste, they looked great but they never had any flavor... she found that hydroponics was the way she wanted to go.
She found a plot of land in Kensington that was deemed a Brownfield, which means the city and state makes it uninhabitable, so you can’t build houses here, you can never use it again. Her goal was to take the property and turn it into something you could use...
It’s grown now to having 28 employee during the season -- we have about eight full-time employees all year round -- it's just this amazing place to come.
When did you enter the fray?
I’m in my sixth season now, it’s kind of great, it’s my sixth spring. It just happened that Mary called me and said, ‘Hey, my manager just quit, do you want a job?’
I would always come here to get plants for my landscaping jobs off-site, so she said, 'You’re always here anyway, so why don’t you come work (here)?’
What inspires you to do gardening and farming?
Just the release it gives you when you’re working with the plants -- the fragrance; the aroma; the joy of looking at them; the beauty that they have; the textures and the amazing growth patterns that they have; watching a fern unreel its spirals -- it’s amazing just to see it.
I had an employee walk in today and say, ‘I was here two days ago and nothing was flowering, I walked in today and the whole entire greenhouse is blooming with colors and smells and accents.’ It touches every sense that you have.
What’s you favorite thing to grow?
It would be lettuce just because it’s the easiest thing to grow in the world. Other than that just plants in general.
The great thing about growing any kind of plant is that you have your successes and failures and it’s always a learning experience. It’s always something challenging and it’s always something new.
So I really don’t have a favorite plant to grow. I just like trying out new things all the time.
If someone wants to get started, where do they start?
The best thing is to do some research, find out what kind of quality of ground they have. If they want to do edibles make sure the soil they want to grow in is worthwhile growing in -- make sure there aren’t a lot of contaminants in the soil. The city has a lot of challenges with lead, phosphates and other things that are in the soil just from being an industrial area. So you want to get your soil checked.
You want to make sure that you have your light situation (checked). If you have a shady yard or a sun yard or parts shade/part sun, all of that depends on what you can grow. If you only get two hours of light a day you’re going to have a really hard time growing a tomato.
Do some research, go on the web... it’s a great asset to have. Check things out on there and learn before you start.
Are gardeners better off getting a seedling or planting from seed?
I would say for the beginner gardener you want to start out with some simple seeds. It’s harder to grow a tomato from seed than it is to grow lettuce from seed.
If you’re starting with summer crops buy your peppers, buy your tomatoes, buy your cucumbers, buy your eggplants (already started). If you’re doing lettuce and carrots and things that are easy to grow from seed start with them. Lettuce is a non-fail, safe bet for anyone who is trying to start out.
So what’s the secret to urban growing?
Most success stories start with educating yourself. If you just jump in and you go out and play in the mud it’s fun but you’re always depressed because things don’t always work so it just becomes a challenge.
Is there one thing that everyone should be putting in their soil or should be doing to it that they aren’t?
Compost is liquid gold... composting is really big right now in the States, especially using it from your own waste. Doing home composting is a really great thing. And the benefit of that is that you get this amazing, rich soil that you can add to your bed. It just changes and uplifts everything. It’s like giving vitamin B to a plant.
Greensgrow's nursery is open to the public Wednesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.