How Do Philly’s Gardens Grow? Most Abundantly


When you think about urban greenery, it's probably Central Park — that oasis of trails, lakes and playgrounds in central Manhattan — that first comes to mind.

But, truth be told, Philadelphia — with its expansive Fairmount Park system and sprinkling of urban squares (Rittenhouse, Logan and Fitler, among others) — was designed to be the mecca for city gardens.

At least that's what gardening guru Adam Levine says, referring to the region in his new book, A Guide to the Great Gardens of the Philadelphia Region, as "the horticultural epicenter of the United States."

Sitting down for an interview last week, Levine — who attributes his interest in environmentalism, in part, to his liberal Jewish upbringing — explained further: Philadelphia stands out for both its sheer volume of public gardens ("more than almost any other region in the world," he claims) and for its horticultural history (William Penn sought to create a "green country town" here in 1682).

If anyone is qualified to bestow such superlatives, it's Levine. After all, the 48-year-old Media resident, who grew up in the Conservative movement, has been gardening and writing — and writing about gardens — his entire adult life.

The author or co-author of three books on the subject — including one on the Philadelphia Flower Show — Levine has visited nearly every green swath in the area, from the extravagant (Longwood Gardens boasts 325 open acres, as well as fountain shows, fireworks and concerts) to quaint, unassuming places like Gibraltar, a two-acre plot in Wilmington, Del.

Levine's newest garden guide — which the author will discuss March 7 at the flower show — features about 90 of these gems, including lavish estate grounds, exotic botanical displays and urban community gardens.

For each one, Levine provides some historical context, and describes the must-see sights and smells. He also offers quirky tidbits, informing readers, for example, that Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in Bucks County is a prime bird-watching spot.

"I hope [the book] gives a lot of practical information about the gardens," said Levine. Because enjoying gardens is "as much an education in the aesthetics of horticulture as it is in the science of horticulture."

Levine said he caught the green thumb as a child, watching his mom garden in Connecticut. Later, at the University of Pennsylvania, he majored in American civilization, and was active in the environmental club on campus.

After graduating, Levine worked as a freelance writer — for The Philadelphia Inquirer and others — then full-time at the Gloucester County Times.

But after two years at the New Jersey daily, Levine returned to freelancing.

He also began doing odd gardening jobs with his life partner, landscape designer Tom Borkowski, while tending a small community garden in West Philly.

"I met the whole neighborhood that way," Levine said.

For a time after returning to freelancing, Levine even considered a career in professional gardening.

But the amateur gardener was repeatedly passed over for jobs.

"So I just kept doing what I was doing — writing about gardens, and visiting the local gardens."

Ironically, that led Levine to what he feels he was "meant to do."

"This is sort of my role in the local horticultural community," he said. "To have taken my writing skills and basically used them to help promote and interpret all the local gardens." 



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