Wherever you live, if you’re a gardener, you should get to know the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Their mission is to inspire gardening for the greater good. On this week’s podcast, PHS President Matt Rader is here to share all the good work the society does to beautify communities and improve the health and well-being of individuals as well as ecosystems.
Matt is the 37th president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which serves the greater Philadelphia region and is known and admired globally for hosting the annual Philadelphia Flower Show. Among his responsibilities, Matt leads Vision 2027, a PHS initiative to advance “gardening for the greater good” by promoting social connections, healthy living environments, fresh food access and economic opportunity. He was also a 2021 Eisenhower Fellow, which involved traveling to Germany and Spain to design a program to create a national community of gardeners working together to engage children, support healthy ecosystems, reduce chemical usage and support local economic development.
PHS believes in the power of horticulture to make positive social and environmental change. Matt encourages everyone to “look at the world around you and imagine how you could change it with gardening.”
He points out that Philadelphia is called America’s Garden Capital.
“We have more than 30 amazing public gardens within 30 miles of our city,” he says. “So anybody who’s a garden lover, come visit. PHS tries to bring high-quality horticulture right into parks and public spaces in Philadelphia and the region. So we have an array of gardens from Meadowbrook Farm, which is in the northern suburbs, to Logan Circle and the art museum grounds right in the center of Philadelphia that are maintained by us for the use of the public at no cost as great gardens.”
Before proceeding with my conversation with Matt about the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, I want to take a moment to remind you that I have a new book out, “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest.” It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy™ premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.
The Philadelphia Flower Show
I have been an attendee of the Philadelphia Flower Show for many years. It’s an event that raises funds for the many good community causes that the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society supports. It is the largest indoor flower show in the world and America’s premier gardening event, Matt says, with more than 250,000 visitors over nine days.
This year, the Philadelphia Flower Show will take place from March 4th through 12th, with the theme “The Garden Electric.” It’s a spectacle of display gardens, floral displays and competitions in indoor plants, garden design and garden arts, Matt says.
If you haven’t been to the Philadelphia Flower Show yet and are still contemplating it, don’t think twice. Just go! You won’t regret it.
And Matt points out that you can do more than just attend: You can compete. Guests from all over the United States and farther afield enter their indoor plants, floral arrangements, botanical jewelry and more.
The first Philadelphia Flower Show was held in June 1829. Even back then it was an indoor event — though it took place outdoors in 2021 and 2022 due to COVID.
“When COVID challenged us, we knew we couldn’t produce an indoor show in 2021,” Matt recalls. “So we said, ‘The flower show is amazing. It needs to continue because it’s a source of positive energy and fundraising and joy and love of horticulture.’ So we rallied. We took it outdoors. We did it again in 2022 because omicron and delta had shown up, but now we are so thrilled to bring it back indoors in March, where it becomes really the first breath of spring and this amazing exuberant source of energy for people who are preparing their exhibits all winter.”
Looking forward to the flower show helps to keep gardening alive through the darkest cold days of December, January and February, he says. I agree: We need to get our fill of flowers and plants inside when it’s still nasty outside so we’re even more excited about what’s to come.
Gardening for the Greater Good
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and I are on the same page when it comes to encouraging people to improve their own lives as well as the world, society and the environment through gardening.
The Society often uses the phrase “gardening for the greater good.” Matt explains that the core idea behind that ethos is that gardening — a person cultivating plants — is a superpower to transform one’s life, the world, the community, the environment. “And we want more people to discover that superpower and to use it, and to use it together,” he says.
I love the way that Matt defines gardening for the greater good. It articulates so well the way that I feel about gardening myself.
PHS’s four principles of gardening for the greater good are:
- Celebrate Gardening
- Choose Your Plants with Intention
- See Your Garden as Part of the Ecosystem
- Embrace a Sharing Mindset
“Be really conscious about where you’re spending your money to support those who are supporting a healthy gardening world,” Matt says. “Think about wildlife and pollinators. Think about plants that are suitable to your water and other conditions so that you can limit added water and chemical usage. And try to avoid invasive plants, which are not great for all of us.”
In seeing gardens as part of an ecosystem, PHS encourages gardeners to recognize that their gardens have a relationship with water, wildlife and humans.
“Make decisions that support it all,” Matt says. “You’re designing for your joy for sure, but also think about your choices and how they influence what’s around you.”
Embrace a Sharing Mindset
“Gardening is an amazing way to build relationships,” Matt says. “So whether it’s growing something to share it or bringing others into your garden to learn with you, there’s lots of opportunities to use your garden as a way to share knowledge and ideas and produce and everything else with other people and build relationships.”
How PHS Serves Gardeners
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society provides an array of services to home gardeners, from kids to pros, including educational classes, webinars and materials, an award-winning magazine, a library, trips and more.
Matt shares: “We have principles that we want people to think about when they garden: To celebrate beauty, exuberance, creativity; to be really thoughtful about where you purchase plants and materials so that it’s supporting health; to see your garden as part of a broader ecosystem; And to embrace the sharing mindset.”
PHS seeks to support everyone who wishes to have a backyard garden.
“We want to support you, and we want that act of you caring for your garden. to be something that allows you to feel like you’re supporting a healthier world,” Matt says.
Growing out of that first step is partnering with neighbors and investing in civic causes. But it starts with a personal decision to dive into gardening.
“If you’re just growing the succulent you bought at the supermarket on your countertop, we want you to feel that that is an act that is bringing joy to you, but also in some ways helping the rest of the world,” Matt says.
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Healthy Neighborhoods program works in 250 communities around the Philadelphia region. It serves the society’s broader mission of using horticulture to advance health and well-being.
“There’s this idea of social determinants of health, which is a very wonky term, but what it means is there are actual things in our lives or in our environments that we can change that will lead us to health,” Matt says.
He explains that the four social determinants that the society focuses on are strong social connections, so people are connected to each other; livable environments, or neighborhoods that are healthy, clean, safe, not too hot, not flooded, etc.;. access to fresh food; and access to jobs and economic opportunity.
“In our Healthy Neighborhoods work, we work to put horticulture into neighborhoods in a couple different ways,” Matt says.
One way is establishing community gardens, often with individual plots for each gardener and in other cases, a shared space. The society supports 171 community gardens across Philadelphia by providing educational programs, 250,000 seedlings annually, soil, compost and row cover. It also partners with a land trust to purchase and preserve garden land and raises money to build fending, waterlines and beds.
“All of this is in the interest of making sure that any neighborhood that wants to have a community garden can create one,” Matt says. “It’s got to start with strong volunteers who say, ‘I want to do this.’ And then we’re there to support them along the way.”
The society calls one of its initiatives “LandCare,” which means that when there is vacant land in a neighborhood, it should be “cleaned, greened, and maintained as community space,” according to Matt.
“If you have a vacant lot that’s not maintained or has short dumping or whatever might happen, that is a major negative impact on your quality of life,” Matt says. “So in 12,000 lots across Philadelphia — Philadelphia has a lot of vacant land — we clean green and maintain these lots twice a month.”
The society arranged for putting up fences, cleaning up, putting down soil and planting grass. In some cases, they even plant pollinator gardens and trees.
“We maintain them through neighborhood contractors — small businessmen working in the neighborhood who then employ residents as well,” Matt says. “So you get lots of impacts, You get a clean and green lot, which improves quality of life. Research from the University of Pennsylvania shows us that it reduces gun crime by up to 30% and reduces feelings of depression by 68%. And then you’re also directly employing contractors and people.”
For an overview of the amazing work that the LandCare program does, check out the TEDx Philadelphia talk presented by Keith Green, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s senior director of LandCare and workforce development. Keith shares a lot of the before and after pictures that contrast what the vacant lots looked like before and now: neighbors playing soccer, grilling, even a horse grazing. It paints the picture and lets you see the community impact that has.
Additionally, The Washington Post made a three-minute mini-documentary about LandCare and how fixing blight has a transformational impact on communities. It’s through the perspective of Dr. Eugenia C. South, an emergency care physician who works with researchers to study place-based interventions that promote safe communities.
Another Pennsylvania Horticultural Society program was developed to restore and maintain tree canopies to neighborhoods, whether city streets or suburban. It’s called Tree Tenders, and it’s one more way that PHS introduces plants to spaces as a means of improving lives.
“It’s nine hours of basic training in tree care and tree politics and tree everything,” Matt says of Tree Tenders.
“We help them find other Tree Tenders in their neighborhood — we have more than a hundred neighborhoods in the region with these groups — and then twice a year they go around to their neighbors and ask for permission to plant trees in front of their houses,” he explains. “And then those permits come through PHS. We help select the right tree for the right place so that we’re dealing with all of the conditions that tree may confront.”
The society purchases the bare-root trees, and tree distributions happen two days per year,
“They then do planting. We’ve cut the sidewalk pits and offered stakes and straps, et cetera,” Matt says. “And then those trees are in the ground, and then the Tree Tenders play the role of encouraging people to water them. They do early-stage pruning, and they make sure the trees get cared for.”
The Tree Tenders program has a number of side benefits: strong social connections between people because they’re building tree canopy together, a more livable environment and the safety and health impacts that come from trees.
More than 6,000 people have been through Tree Tender training, which is now offered online so it has a reach beyond Pennsylvania.
PHS Public Gardens & Landscapes
The society maintains more than 20 ornamental gardens in parks and public spaces around the region.
“Those are very much about putting horticulture out there for people to use and applying it to challenges faced by neighborhoods,” Matt says.
“When you think about motivating individuals to use gardening to embrace the world, you’re dealing with two sets: You’re dealing with people who already love gardening and want to do something with it to improve the world, and you also dealing with people who want to improve the world but haven’t realized gardening is a tool for them.”
Matt notes there is a lot of data that shows the value to humans of being in nature and shows higher levels of biodiversity lead to better results in terms of human and environmental impacts.
“We’re trying to make sure that, that great horticulture is, is in reach of everyone so that they can receive those benefits,” he says.
If your community has parks or public spaces that are just grass and trees, think about how you could add more plants, Matt says, adding that more woody and herbaceous plants enrich the quality of the landscape.
“We should think about that beautiful ornamental garden as a public space amenity, the same way we think about soccer fields and tennis courts because they are places and services that really transform people’s mental and physical health,” he says.
Whether it’s a public garden or you’re walking out your front door around some trees in greenery, it changes your mood instantly. The work PHS does to create more of those environments is really wonderful.
Green Stormwater Infrastructure
When stormwater is not managed properly in an urban environment, it can cause flooding and can also lead to nutrient pollution in water bodies. Smart management of stormwater is one of PHS’s aims.
“Philadelphia is a densely built city, like many urban environments and anything we can do to take out paving and put in things that absorb water means we have a healthier water system for the whole region,” Matt says. “And so we work with the city of Philadelphia to have people install rain gardens, to tear up hard paving and replace it with permeable paving, to install rain barrels that they can use to water their gardens. And these things happen across the city. And it’s a really good example of how a gardener thinking about their garden as part of an ecosystem can make changes that support that ecosystem.”
PHS’s Workforce Development Program
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society runs a program to train people for employment, place them in jobs and support them along the way.
“Helping somebody move into stable employment is certainly about job skills, but it’s also about helping them develop all the soft skills from managing challenges that they might be facing in family or household to figuring out transportation, to figuring out conflict resolution, resume writing, being part of a team,” Matt says
PHS works with its contractors who clean and green vacant land to create job opportunities and trains people who have previously been incarcerated or otherwise faced obstacles to employment to enter those jobs and be successful.
The society’s contractors employ 300 people a year to clean and green lots around Philadelphia, and there are many other horticulture careers that this program opens doors to.
“Horticulture has the potential to change the world,” Matt says. “It changes each of us who participate, unlocks our creativity, gets us moving physically, allows us to express our culture and our story, and it’s also a tool to change the world around us. So if there’s a simple action, it’s to look and to see and to think. So if you’re driving out your driveway, down your street, look at what’s actually around you. And imagine how planting something could change the story.
“So maybe it is working with your neighbors to plant trees,” he continues. “Maybe it is working with your neighbors to reduce chemical use on lawns or convert lawn to garden. Maybe it’s something like starting a neighborhood vegetable or flower-sharing program where you all make a commitment to grow something and offer it to somebody else.
“But it begins with this very simple act of looking at the world around you and imagining how gardening could change it.”
PHS programs are replicable elsewhere, and PHS is eager to help.
“We’re always happy to talk,” Matt says. “So if somebody has a vision for cleaning and greening vacant land in their community or building a large-scale tree planting program, we’re a resource.”
“Gardening is an act that even if you do it for the most selfish reasons, still helps other people,” he says. “So if you plant an exquisite tree and you build walls around it so nobody else can see it, because you are that person, that tree is still cleaning air and water, providing habitat and transforming the world.”
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Matt Radar of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society . If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Have you worked to improve your community through gardening? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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Philadelphia Flower Show: The Garden Electric, March 4-12, 2023
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, AeroGarden, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, National Wildlife Federation and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.