by Lisa Turner
As a Penn Charter Upper School teacher and garden educator, I am in my sixth year of work-study with Depaul House garden in Germantown. Through that work, and in partnership with Tom Rickards, my colleague in Religious Studies and Philosophy, I have learned an important truth: Many of the best revelations live outside the school and meeting houses.
Teacher Tom’s 10th grade Quakerism class arrives on a sunny October day, the most recent of their alternating visits to local meeting houses and trips to the garden. It is the third year of our partnership. In this course that explores the testimonies of Friends through weekly service projects and reflection, students have grown skilled at learning in changing spaces.
“Okay, friends,” I say. “Welcome! Let’s begin with a moment of silence.”
Our beginning is always a circle.
“It’s a good day to garden! I have six tasks today. I’ll read the list and you can determine which one speaks to you. One: lettuce and strawberry planting. Two: tall-reaching removal of an invasive weed. Three: tomato harvest. Four: bouquet gathering—recycled jars and scissors are over there. Five: hot pepper harvest—see me for special authorization. And six: Mystery Dig—something delicious is underground in bed 12, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.”
I re-read the list, and students volunteer for their choices, smiling. There are always surprises. When we loop back to the tall-person task, all eyes land on the youngest McGlinchey. But Tom is not here for typecasting today. He and his colleague stake a claim on the Mystery Dig.
With their important and singular tasks, each set of students cares for the garden and the many communities connected to it. Later that day, two students decide to deliver their jar of zinnias and fuzzy-tailed reeds to Head of School Karen Warren Coleman, who would later talk about how meaningful this seemingly small gesture was to her.
Depaul House garden is a 25-bed green space at the corner of Sprague and Price Streets in Germantown—part of a large, green land parcel that is privately owned and leased. The house hosts a men’s residence with staff supporting pathways to wellness and employment. Penn Charter’s partnership with Depaul spans six years.
Teacher Tom’s class arrives in a week that has been shattered by news of war. When one task remains unclaimed on the garden list—the tall vine removal—Tom steps into that role, as he always does, filling the need that remains.
“Focusing on that was exactly what I needed today,” he says.
A garden fulfills the need for peace in ourselves and is also a mechanism for peace in the world. To grow is to create, generate and connect. A garden is the opposite of war.
I arrived at Penn Charter in 2012, one year after Jim Ballengee founded the Center for Public Purpose, under the headship of Darryl J. Ford. Jim proposed a unique opportunity to fulfill my “coaching” responsibility in the Upper School: managing the learning garden at St. James School down the road in Allegheny West. It was a job component I came to cherish as much as classroom teaching, and it later expanded to PC campus gardening and Depaul House garden. Some of Penn Charter’s most distinguished work has emerged from Jim’s legacy of integrity; by centering community engagement at Penn Charter, he has ensured that students are consistently connected to our Strategic Vision. Now under the directorship of Aly Goodner, community engagement, outdoor education and experiential learning are all flourishing; Michael LoStracco, chair of Religious Studies and Philosophy, and his department also provide hundreds of students with real and ongoing opportunities to live our Quaker mission.
When I first began managing the garden at Depaul House, the chain-link fence area was piled 16 feet high with stumps—the perfect scaffolding for stinging, invasive hops. Sister Marge, a resident nun on the property at the time, made it her mission to rid the garden of those stumps. If my years as a student and teacher at Catholic schools taught me anything, it’s that when a Sister provides a directive, it is my mission to follow it.
A year later, on my 50th birthday, I decide to take that stump project to the next level by crowdsourcing a mulch pile. For years I had longed for the kind of mulch power to keep the hops and thistles at bay, and this was my big chance! The donations became their own Continuing Revelation. Community is everywhere! Friends from California, Colorado, Virginia and, of course, Philadelphia, all contributed to my weed-abatement mission. Two years later, the mulch has drastically shifted my time from weeding to growing.
Pollinator plants and raspberries now thrive in the mulched space where the pileup used to be; my father-in-law is the lead volunteer in this effort, occasionally with the help of a (very) young gardener from the neighborhood.
The garden is surrounded by a pointed iron fence. Over, through or around it, the neighbors come to visit: Ms. Doreen, the de facto block mayor; artist and mother Moniqua; Christine Gaylord Johnson, a local children’s book author. We chat and share the food that grows in the garden. Ms. Doreen has a standing order of scallions, collards and hot peppers, which she returns in little packages of cooked goodness. In the summer, Mondays are chef harvests, tailored for the menus of Depaul House chef Christine’a Rainey and Damon Banks of Dame's Delicious Catering. Dame turns any and all greens into platters of joy.
Neighbor distribution remains the largest and most effective channel for food grown at Depaul House garden. The remaining top five destinations include PC staff and faculty common areas, Germantown Community Fridge, East Falls Community Fridge and the Turner-Thomas family kitchen.
Working at Depaul reveals that time is a luxury. If we have it, spending it in service is one of the most healing things we can do as human beings. A recent visitor to the Upper School, Rodney Eric Lopez, shared a related idea from fellow dance scholar Anita Amirrezvan: “Partner dancing is fun ... but I'd like to suggest that it's also a form of resistance.
When you're dancing, you can't buy anything. You can't be deluged with ads … You participate and immerse yourself in it, instead of outside and watching it. You're an active creator of your own fun.” This truth also applies to the garden, where the only consumption at play is the actual human need to eat! Gardening is a dignity proposition. Food cultivation illuminates the human right to eat what is close, delicious and healthy.
I want to eat everything that grows in the garden—and I do—raw, roasted, sauced and souped. My produce obsession is also compost for conversations about recipes, families and a million other most important things. Community engagement is a relationship, not a transaction. My life, heart and stomach—and those of my friends, family and colleagues—have been filled at Depaul House garden. Tom and I both want this life for our students and the people who live nearby.
To steward the Earth and all of its residents is also to grow new thoughts and realize that nothing is new. Perhaps Shakespeare put it best: When Hamlet and Horatio, his best friend and fellow theologian, discuss the mysterious appearance of The Ghost, Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare wrote these lines at a time when two versions of Christianity were competing for primacy in Europe; praying to the dead had recently been declared illegal by the Protestants then in power.
I like to interpret these lines as Shakespeare telegraphing the folly of human rules, borders and enclosures. The garden itself as a wrought-iron enclosure is a very recent human practice; when 18th century European land holders introduced fencing to keep peasants away from particular areas, hunger and poverty emerged in new ways. Throughout the Lenapehoking, the original homeland of the Lenape, our Indigenous friends continue to grow and find food everywhere. They have embodied Quaker testimonies since a time well before Quakers existed.
I have learned that everyone needs good food. Everyone is in need. Community and other testimonies are enacted both inside and outside. Things that grow are medicine. The best food distribution channels will always be closest to the source: neighbors, bees, teachers, groundhogs, goldfinches, high school students, and of course, the gardener. The unannounced visits of cats and insects, just like our students’ planned ones, are joy deliveries. Each of us brings our own lived testimonies of peace, integrity, stewardship and equity.
If you and your family would like to spend time at Depaul House garden, email Lisa Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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