July 16, 2014–On the sidewalk in the decidedly urban and deeply historic neighborhood of Germantown a few blocks from where I live, there’s a farmstand every Friday afternoon from May through October where you can buy produce grown on the grounds of a national historic landmark, Wyck Farm. There’s been a farm here for more than 300 years. The two-and-a-half-acre fragment still left is just down Germantown Avenue from Cliveden, a colonial mansion that was at the center of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Germantown, The oldest section of the farmhouse that still stands on Wyck Farm, sharing a funky stretch of the avenue with Charley Grey’s Rib Crib, Mecca Pizza and the Brand New Life Christian Center, was built in 1736.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Wyck Farm, which was owned for nine generations by a prominent Quaker family, occupied 50 acres in what was then a rural hamlet several hours by horse and buggy from Philadelphia. The remaining parcel is a bucolic oasis surrounded by the city. It is run by an association that offers summer camps and other educational offerings for kids, programs about local history and the weekly farmers market, featuring gourmet produce sold at prices that are fitting for a low-income neighborhood.
On my visits in recent weeks, I purchased carrots, beets, radishes, kale and other staples, as well as specialty items such as garlic scapes, black raspberries and gooseberries. Visitors on market afternoons are welcome to take a self-guided tour of the property. If you have questions about the day’s offerings, the farm manager, Katie Brownell, is happy to chat. If you, like me, are a gardener yourself, you can pick up some pointers from her about which vegetable varieties are doing best, how she is coping with pests and what she expects to have for sale in the weeks ahead.
Katie was introduced to farming in this region when she worked at farmers markets affiliated with the Food Trust, an organization that helps oversee more than two dozen farmers markets in the city including the Wyck Farmers Market. In that job, she got to know some of the growers, which led to jobs on nearby farms in the region that sell at Philadelphia farmers markets. She later completed a graduate program in organic farming in Michigan.
This is her second year managing the Wyck Home Farm. It is an ongoing learning experience, she says. Some of what she learned in Michigan hasn’t worked here. For example, as she noted in the weekly report that she emails to customers, some lettuce varieties that lasted through the summer in the somewhat cooler climate of Michigan bolted before the end of May in Philadelphia. On the other hand, a tomato variety that was one of her favorites in Michigan, the dramatically striped Copia, thrived in Germantown last year and she expects it to be a star performer again this year.
Katie is also looking forward to a mid-summer harvest of a crop that you don’t ordinarily see around here at the hottest time of year: broccoli. The Piracicaba variety, from Brazil, “actually enjoys hot weather,” she wrote in one of her weekly reports. And if you’re looking for something new to eat, keep an eye out for Malabar climbing spinach, a nutritious green that loves 90-degree heat. On my recent tours of the farm, I’ve noticed that it has been about a foot higher on the trellis each week.