With the coming of spring, volunteers from Occupy Philly and other community groups are descending on the vacant lots on Mercy Street in South Philly to begin growing free food on vacant city land. Established as Philly Food Forests two years ago by Robyn Mello, the group is now affiliated with Occupy Philly and calls itself Occupy Vacant Lots.

Occupy Vacant Lots is creating a new culture of health by assisting & educating residents to take control of their neighborhoods by cleaning blighted spaces & starting free food-producing gardens.

Philadelphia has 40,000 vacant lots, 20,000 of which are owned by the city and are available for residents who are willing to improve them to enhance the image of the neighborhoods.  Robyn’s group has identified several lots in different parts of Philly and is turning them into edible gardens. This past Sunday was the second scheduled workparty of this spring, this time at Mercy Edible Park in South Philly.

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Robyn and friend in front of Mercy Edible Park, South Philly

About 40 volunteers showed up and pitched in spreading compost and wood chips, weeding, trimming grape vines, planting a pair of fruit trees, turning the ground, and preparing  beds for the planting of vegetables and herbs. The Occupy Supplymobile was on hand for the delivery of nutrient-rich mushroom soil from nearby Kennett Square, the “Mushroom Capital of the World.”

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Occupy Supplymobile delivering what the horse left

OVL workparties are celebrations of nature for everyone in the neighborhood. Music is provided by the neighbor’s boom box. Furry animals are provided for entertainment for the kids.

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Puppy love

What does it take to turn a pocket of urban blight into a vibrant source of color and healthy food for the ground tillers and the nearby neighbors? Robyn Mello offers the magic formula.

In terms of a complete list of what it takes, the only real givens are trash bags for trash collection, a spade (shovel), a rake, a pair of gloves, water (watering can, spigot, hose, or rainwater catchment system), & some seeds. Supplies are good, but manual labor, interest, & commitment are all that are really necessary.

Every lot is different. Some are as easy as pulling up weeds/grass, loosening up the soil a little bit, putting seeds in, & watering when needed.

We encourage all our partners to take soil samples (they can be sent to UMass) so they can know what kind of nutrients are available & whether or not there are heavy metals present. If the soil is high in metal (lead, cadmium, etc.) levels, raised beds are best. That requires untreated lumber (2x8s preferred), cinder blocks, or creative masonry work if there’s lots of usable bricks around. Some people build beds with reclaimed wood such as railroad ties, but many frown upon that because it may be chemically treated or have lead-based paint.

We also could use pickaxes, wheelbarrows, small hand tools, hoes, pitchforks, 5-gallon buckets, 55-gallon food grade barrels, reel push mowers (non-electric old school), scythes, hammers, nails, rebar, pallets, chicken wire, PVC pipe, clay, strawbales, woodchips, compost, manure, coffee grounds, fruit & nut trees, berry bushes, seedlings, etc.

The edible park on Mercy street also sports an international component. One section of the garden is cultivated by gardening aficionados from Bhutan. Everyone will have to wait till harvest time to see what the Bhutanese can conjure from the soil.

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Bhutan guys