Exploring the bounty of West Chester Gardens
Story & Photos by Jesse Piersol
My grandparents always had gardens. I wasn’t terribly helpful other than eating the strawberries in my grandfather’s berry patch, but I liked being outside and thinking I was helping,” recollects borough gardener Ashlie Delshad.
In her exquisite, meticulously maintained backyard garden near West Chester University, her recent focus has been on growing plants vertically to make better use of space. Innovations abound, such as a sloped trellis for cucumbers to climb while simultaneously providing shade for tender lettuce tucked underneath, and zucchini plants staked to encourage height and reduce disease by providing greater air circulation.
Dr. Ashlie Delshad knows a thing or two about gardening: She has taught courses in environmental policy, social inequality, and food politics at WCU since 2011. In 2015 she founded the garden on south campus as part of her environmental politics and policy course, which continues to expand under her leadership. During spring break, she takes WCU students for a week of volunteer work in Philadelphia community gardens through City Harvest, an extension of Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. On top of all that, she is currently lead site manager for the new community garden at the Melton Center as a member of the West Chester Green Team. Established in 2019, the Green Team is an alliance of four separate environmental groups dedicated to promoting sustainability.
Delshad notes that an overwhelming number of people wanted to garden during the pandemic. Her favorite local seed company, True Love Seeds, quickly ran out of inventory last spring. “It’s a testimonial to how therapeutic gardening is,” she says. “Cut off from other activities, it became something that folks latched onto.”
Indeed, her backyard beds are joined by countless others sending seedlings forth into the world. From the solitary tomato plant scaling its porch planter to the bustling community vegetable beds around the borough, from low-maintenance yard design to exuberant blooms shipped all over the country, West Chester’s gardens—and gardeners—are in their prime.
“Gardens can grow fruits, they can grow vegetables, and they can grow community,” Delshad quips. “Even when I’m out in my own yard, working in my own garden, there is still a sense of community. I’m seeing my neighbors across the fence. I’m giving them produce.”
She believes that everyone who wants to garden should have access to one. “Most people don’t have the green space to garden,” she explains. “We have these large parks and we put in playgrounds, which everyone recognizes is for public recreation. But we need to rethink gardening as a public recreational activity, too.”
Prior to 2009, the abandoned water tower site at the corner of West Gay and North New streets was an eyesore slated for development as a parking lot by the Borough of West Chester. But the Historic West End Neighborhood Association, a group of west end residents committed to strengthening the sense of community in their neighborhood, had a better idea.
Today, the land hosts 23 raised beds teeming with fruit and vegetable plants as well as perennials and annuals, all maintained by the members of HWENA. One of the beds is reserved for their gleaning project, which grows food for community members in need.
Green Team Gardens: Melton Center, Barclay Friends, and Private Residence
This past winter, the West Chester Green Team explored “transition” thinking, which, according to Green Team member Margaret Hudgings, is “built around creating happier and healthier communities as we move beyond (or ‘transition’) to a new way of interacting as the fossil fuel-based economy is being replaced. Transition asks that each community has brainstorming sessions to explore what their area needs. In the case of West Chester, the number one need cited by the brainstormers was community gardens.”
As a result, West Chester now boasts three new gardens: Barclay Friends, the Melton Center, and a private home. “Our goal was 20 garden plots for our first year,” says Hudgings. “In our agreements with Barclay and Melton, they agreed to offer the garden space in exchange for specific requests. Barclay wanted gardening education for staff, herb growing for the dining hall, and an outdoor concert in the garden. The Melton Center asked for a Little Library for the center, along with children’s programming.”
“The Melton Center really wanted to be intentional about involving kids in after school and summer camp programs,” adds Delshad. “So they kept half of the beds for kids and allocated the other half to community members.” One of their kid-focused offerings is “Mondays at Melton,” a series of summer environmental, educational, and cultural activities designed for ages 5-10 that runs through August 9.
Garden of the Future
The John O. Green Memorial Park at the intersection of Matlack and Miner Streets underwent a refurbishment two years ago, adding kid-friendly equipment such as a splash pad. But another one of the features requested by community members was a garden. The borough started the project by installing terraced beds alongside a new retaining wall, with the completion date still to be determined as of this writing.
Tucked away all over town are pockets of individual expression of style and substance. Here are two that offer a unique perspective.
A Natural Habitat: Sallie Jones’ Yard
Sallie Jones’s front yard landscape is low maintenance and focuses on plants placed in aesthetically pleasing groupings of colors and textures that are also ecologically valuable. Featured as part of the Green Team’s “Green Man Tour” at the end of June, her front yard contains only herbaceous perennials and bulbs.
She created a palette of plants that provides changing colors, heights, and textures throughout the growing season, as well as food and habitat for birds, bees, and butterflies. “The idea to create an ‘urban meadow’ came from a garden-designer friend, who referred me to the book, The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden by Roy Diblik. Important tenets of this style of garden include knowing your plants, knowing your garden’s light, soil, and moisture requirements, and positioning the plants in drifts or swaths with occasional accent plants.”
A Piece of History: Christina Wilcomes’ Courtyard
Christina Wilcomes, owner of Hackberry Hill Flowers, also owns a house built in 1933 by scientist Raymond Rettew, whose name may be familiar as the person who discovered how to mass produce penicillin. In between the house and the laboratory that Rettew later built is a courtyard which has become Wilcomes’ favorite part of the garden. “We planted three ‘Nishiki’ dappled willow trees for height and then put in a row of ‘Phantom’ hydrangeas,” she describes. “Phantoms are a wonderful paniculata variety of hydrangea that get these enormous flower heads. It puts on quite a show beginning in July.”
While updating the landscape, Wilcomes kept the courtyard design simple, in greens and whites with touches of pink through three seasons, utilizing boxwood, variegated liriope, Creeping Jenny, and Viburnum burkwoodii. “The courtyard is filled with the most amazing scent in early spring when the Burkwood viburnum are in bloom. We framed the space and view with an arbor that bursts into color with ‘Bees’ Jubilee’ clematis (an early bloomer), Sweet Autumn clematis (a late bloomer) and fragrant honeysuckle.”
A bricked courtyard leads to her back garden which then opens up into a more modern, bluestone patio where she has filled dozens of terracotta and concrete pots with the flowers and greens she uses in arrangements for her business, most of which are grown from seed. “In fact, my business is named for this house,” she says. “After coming upon a sketch of our house labeled ‘Hackberry Hill’ in Rettew’s autobiography, I knew it was the perfect name.” Her pots are filled with ‘Covent Garden’ baby’s breath, Amsonia hubrictii foxgloves, ‘Pacific Giants’ delphiniums, every kind of cosmos, sweet peas, Ruby Hyacinth Bean vines, zinnias of every type, Apple and Orange Mints, ‘Chicago Hardy Fig’ trees, citrus trees, and ‘Limon’ Talinum (Jewels of Opar).
West Chester University Campus Gardens
WCU’s four gardens are supported solely by volunteer efforts. They follow organic principles, offering a place for research, teaching, learning, art, and recreation, along with helping to alleviate food insecurity for students.
Ashlie Delshad started the South Campus project six years ago, incorporating its creation into her environmental politics and policy course. In addition to serving students directly and through the distribution of produce through the WCU Resource Pantry, South Campus is open to the West Chester community as well.
City Harvest, a program affiliated with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to alleviate food insecurity by supporting city gardens, provides seedlings and materials each year. The relationship is symbiotic, with WCU students volunteering in City Harvest’s Philadelphia greenhouses as part of alternative spring break each year, readying seedlings for distribution to City Harvest’s 150 gardens.
When West Chester University President Christopher Fiorentino and his wife Susan moved into Tanglewood, the President’s residence, they requested a garden. Dr. Joan Welch obliged, beginning with asparagus and herb beds, along with another raised bed, with new additions each year. Like South Campus, Tanglewood also receives its seedlings through the City Harvest program, and Welch, who teaches courses including the geography of agriculture, food, and sustainability, says that they take the vegetable varieties that students may not recognize on the shelves of the resource pantry. “If you’re a student for whom purple carrots or peas are not part of your culture, you’re going to leave them on the shelf,” she says. Much of the bounty is used by the President and his wife, and during the pandemic, excess produce was taken to the West Chester Food Cupboard.
The Tanglewood property has a long history with growing food; it was formerly an apple orchard. Today, a single remaining apple tree still inhabits the property along its western edge.
In the early morning sunshine, Urban and Environmental Planning major Tyler Montgomery is weeding and mowing as part of his duties as an intern for the north campus garden and outdoor classroom space framed by the planetarium and science buildings.
As a new resident in the borough, he loves the experience of working outside in nature, but the internship has provided him something else, especially in the isolating time of the pandemic: connection. “It’s given me something to do, but also a new perspective on the student/campus relationship,” he relates. “Not only have I met new people, it’s lit a fire in me to get more involved in things on campus.”
Kate Stewart, Professor of Art and founder of the garden, has always loved discovering the origins of various art practices, processes and materials. “In my painting and drawing courses I have designed lectures that identify the technological, political, and cultural shifts in our shared history that have had incredible influence over art historical movements. Also, particularly relevant to these lectures is the influence of technology, politics and culture over the materials available to artists in the creation of art works throughout history,” she writes in her description of the Pigment and Dye Garden located outside the E.O. Bull Center.
The varieties of flowers were selected for their potential to be used as natural pigments for paints and dyes for textiles.
Blooms and Beyond
Christina Wilcomes’ Hackberry Hill Flowers offers garden-inspired florals, container services, and seasonal design workshops. “I started Hackberry Hill Flowers and not too long after the world shut down,” she recalls. “I had several exciting events on the books, and all that disappeared quickly. Fortunately, I still had clients requesting outdoor container work, holiday decoration, and everyday florals. I am very grateful to those customers as that work kept my business afloat.”
This past May, Wilcomes taught several succulents classes at the Chester County History Center. “CCHC has been wonderfully supportive, and I look forward to partnering with them again on flower arranging classes in July and August. Participants will not only learn how to create a sophisticated floral centerpiece using seasonal materials but also how to style a table that will wow guests,” she says.
Another source of borough blooms is Ben Rotteveel, owner of DutchGrown Flower Bulbs. Together with his brother Pete, they are the fourth generation of the family business, which ships flower bulbs from their family farm in the Netherlands to their warehouses on Lincoln Avenue in West Chester and also in Hartford, Michigan. From there, their bulbs travel all over the country. “When our parents were younger, they lived in West Chester for a year,” he says. “They loved the area and when we grew up they always told us about it. When we needed a warehouse for distributing our online sales, there was no doubt we wanted to start off in the West Chester area.”
When the pandemic hit, Rotteveel remembers that demand for flower bulbs and flowers increased, especially by Fall 2020 and during 2021. “People were nervous and not in the mood to buy gardening products or flowers. In the Netherlands, the largest flower producer of the world, in spring 2020 growers needed to throw away millions of flowers because there was no demand. But then it happened: Flower pricing during Spring 2021 was at a record high. We do business with a lot of specialty cut flower growers in the United States, and 2020 and 2021 are record years for them. People started to buy their flowers locally. They now know when you buy your flowers fresh from the farm, the flowers last much longer and the flowers are much bigger. Fresh flowers also have much more fragrance.”
DutchGrown bulbs adorn parks throughout the borough after the company donated thousands of bulbs a few years ago, earning them a key to the borough presented by former Mayor (and current State Senator) Carolyn Comitta.
The Landscape of the Future
Sallie Jones’ words, posted on a placard for visitors to her Union Street garden during the Green Man Garden Tour, capture the universal appeal of the garden. “Being in my garden brings me a sense of calm and perspective, whether I am weeding, planting, deadheading, or just sitting and noticing.”
We can reap the benefits regardless of whether we work in our yards or in a community plot. And size doesn’t matter: Christina Wilcomes urges people with smaller spaces to think vertically. “Bamboo stakes tied together, willow, and even lichen-covered branches make charming supports for all kinds of wonderful climbers, such as passion flowers, sweet peas, and clematis,” she says. “Smaller spaces often benefit from en masse plantings so choosing one edging material, whether it be a Hakonechloa grass, Lady’s Mantle, or tiny Sprinter boxwood can make a space feel larger than it is. Don’t forget about container gardening, which is ideal for small spaces. Pots can be moved around and plants changed each year, fulfilling many gardeners’ desires to grow every plant on the market.”
It is escapism in its most simple form. Ashlie Delshad muses, “There is just something energizing and rejuvenating about focusing on a menial task like weeding and not having to think about all the problems of the world.”