A Decade of Growth: The Legacy of Chris van de Velde

by Hideko Secrest, Leaflet Editor

Christopher van de Velde is a quiet but commanding presence at Awbury, a man with very definite ideas about what should be here and what the Arboretum should offer, and a man who is determined to pursue all the connections to make those things happen. His first connection with the Arboretum came in the early 1980s, when he was asked to join the Board of the City Parks Association (CPA), the entity that is the legal owner of Awbury Arboretum. He remarked, “The neighbors formed the Awbury Arboretum Association (AAA), and petitioned the CPA for permission to assume day-to-day management of Awbury, and to develop programs that could serve and educate the community. I agreed with their viewpoint and led the CPA effort to craft a long-term partnership with the AAA.”

When he arrived in 2010 as the new General Manager, the Arboretum was in a time of transition and change and he immediately went to work on his vision for it. He recalls, “…in 2010 funds for many education and training programs had disappeared, and Awbury needed to find a new way to do things. Fortunately, the William Penn Foundation gave the AAA a multi-year grant to develop new programs and find new sources of revenue. Since I was recently retired, and somewhat bored, I was delighted when asked if I could help in the transformation of Awbury Arboretum for a second time.” He is pictured above with Awbury staff in 2016.

creek with stone footbridge

In the years that followed, van de Velde focused on turnaround and renewal: assessing, restructuring and rebuilding operations, programming, and infrastructure. He has often said that he knew nothing about running an arboretum, and so relied on the creativity and talent of the people he was fortunate to find to work on the transition. And the transition has been dramatic: the past decade has seen historic growth, and a true renaissance at Awbury.

In 2013, van de Velde saw the need for a learning structure on the Farm side of the Arboretum, so he orchestrated the addition of the Education Center, the first new structure at Awbury in nearly a century,  to the The Farm at Awbury, formerly known as the Agricultural Village. Mark Sellers, Chairman of the Board of the Awbury Arboretum Association (pictured at left with van de Velde in 2013), remarked that “the Northwest Tract [as it was called before] was a wilderness—…people used to [camp out] there! Thirty years ago, people had no idea what to do with that part of the Arboretum. It was Chris’s vision to put a building there that would permit people to gather, that made programming on that side of the Arboretum possible. That was a seminal event.”  The new facility, which van de Velde was able to get as a donation from the closure of the private Ivy Leaf School, precipitated a boom in agricultural programming and is now used year-round by a variety of Awbury programs, including school field trips, as well as by our many partners.

In the fall of 2016 van de Velde finalized the sale of a conservation easement to the State of Pennsylvania. The easement covers the 38 acres of the historic landscape side, preserving the landscape from development in perpetuity. The proceeds from the sale of the easement—$1,000,000—were added to the Arboretum’s small endowment, effectively tripling it.

In 2017 van de Velde joined the staff in the formal opening of  AdventureWoods, our natural materials playspace, which is now one of our most popular attractions. Sellers commented that van de Velde was instrumental in encouraging Bryan Hanes (an Awbury Board member) of Studio|Bryan Hanes into creating the whimsical design for the playground. Both men are pictured at right at an event in AdventureWoods in 2017.

That same year, van de Velde oversaw the expansion of the Awbury Community Garden, the construction of a storage barn near the Cope House parking lot, and, most significantly, the installation of a bluestone patio and seasonal tent behind the Francis Cope house.  The new storage barn holds chairs and tables for events at the Cope House, allowing us to increase our revenue from weddings and events and to eliminate delivery and pickup headaches, and the tent allows weddings to be held in all weathers.

In 2018, he was instrumental in our effort to get a multi-year major grant from the William Penn Foundation to increase neighborhood inclusion and participation in Awbury activities, which in turn led to the formation of the Community Think Tank advisory group. The Awbury Ambassadors program, wherein staff from the neighborhood serve as welcoming faces to the Arboretum on weekends, was one of the many improvements that has grown out of the work supported by this grant.

creek with stone footbridge

In late 2019, he pushed for the purchase of an historic carriage house and its land adjacent to the Arboretum. According to Sellers, “One of his crowning achievements will be pulling the Carriage House back into the scope of the Arboretum. In a time when public gardens have been static, he has managed to add an acre of land [to the Arboretum]. Chris has really led the charge to make the Arboretum stand on its own two feet economically so that now our programs can go forward. We have been through a period of building so that now we can go through a period of improved and enhanced programming.”

2020 saw the renovation of upstairs offices at the Cope House into a wedding suite (see photo at left), so that wedding parties could have a private place to change, relax, and socialize before and after the reception. Unfortunately, the pandemic struck right as the rooms were being finalized, so they have yet to be used, but we expect that they will be a big draw post-pandemic.

Over the years, van de Velde’s working relationship with the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission has led to grants from them for refurbishing and restoring the Cope House’s wooden floors, its historic parlor windows and pocket doors, and for updating its HVAC system.

All of these improvements to our buildings and grounds have paved the way for new programming and increased community engagement. Awbury’s combined programs, events, partnerships and visitation served over 36,000 people in 2019 – over a threefold increase from the 10,000 visits recorded in 2013. In 2020, the pandemic year, we recorded over 29,000 visits, but the actual number may have been even higher, since staff was, for much of that, furloughed or working from home and so could not record every visit.

As of today, van de Velde has been guiding the Arboretum toward the future for over a decade, steadfast in his vision for making it into a vibrant community hub, welcoming both neighbors and visitors from afar. For him, this has been a labor of love: throughout all of this, his annual salary has been $1. Now he is ready to step down from his role at the top. According to Sellers: “The idea all along has been to hand the torch to Heather [Zimmerman, our new Executive Director] and to give her everything she needs to make the place a program powerhouse.”

We are not, however, losing van de Velde: while he is stepping back from his role of General Manager, he will remain at Awbury in the capacity of Project Manager, instrumental in the planning and execution of large capital projects, historical restoration projects, new building, and new landscape features. One big project on the horizon is the creation of a community pavilion at The Farm at Awbury [see article].  As he looks back on his tenure here, van de Velde muses, “The last 10 years have been fun and rewarding. I am delighted we have such a talented staff to continue the progress so many have contributed to over the past ten years, and I am glad I can continue contributing to the growth of this very special gift left to the community more than 104 years ago by a generous family.” So, as the next chapter in our story begins, rest assured that Chris van de Velde will continue as a dedicated champion of Awbury Arboretum.

Missive From the Director’s Desk

by Heather Zimmerman, Executive Director
creek with stone footbridge

Punxsutawney Phil has called for six more weeks of winter. Although we have many groundhogs at Awbury, I have not seen them scurrying around lately. No doubt they are still slumbering away, waiting for spring. I, too, am waiting for spring, but also taking time to appreciate winter. I have seen red fox, red tailed hawks and deer in the Arboretum, whether spotted trotting through the meadow or just coming across hoof prints in the glistening snow. The winter landscape is full of life! The magnolias’ spring blooms are swelling on ice-tipped branches and snowdrops should be showing delicate but hardy blooms very soon.

Observing nature in winter helps me remember that, even in the cold and dark, life is abundant and growing. Even during the pandemic we plan, we dream, we hope. Come take a winter walk at Awbury whether with our Wellness Team or on a quiet stroll on your own. There is magic in nature every season to soothe the soul and elevate the heart.

2021: The Year of Water

by Nancy Pasquier, Field Studies Director
creek with stone footbridge

Each year, Awbury identifies a theme that celebrates the Arboretum and provides a focus for programming. This year, in recognition of our completed pond and wetlands renovation, we have selected Water. The theme might also signal renewed optimism after such a difficult year of loss. Water is fundamental to existence, from providing drinking water to a city of over 1.5 million people to supporting the growth of an oak tree from a seed. It is without doubt a life-sustaining, precious resource.

If you have visited Awbury’s watercourse area, which is located on both sides of  Washington Avenue, you will know that it is one of the Arboretum’s ecological highlights. It includes a stream that is the last remaining above-ground portion of the historic Wingohocking Creek in Philadelphia.  In 1919, landscape architect Arthur Cowell added two ponds and a bog. The watercourse today includes a healthy stream, a Spring House, walking paths, picnic tables, two healthy ponds and charming stone walls and bridges to cross the stream.

creek with stone footbridge

The completion of this much-awaited renovation is certainly cause for celebration. The area had been in a state of disrepair for many years, and we are now hopeful that our ponds will once again host turtles, frogs, waterfowl, fish, and innumerable aquatic invertebrates as they have in the past.  With the removal of invasive plants and the planting of natives, our riparian buffer can again support the health of our beloved watercourse.

Fittingly, our first event related to The Year of Water will be the initiation of a Streamkeepers volunteer group. With the support of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, Inc., we will train interested volunteers to monitor the water quality of our stream to help ensure that we maintain its health. No specific skills are required and the opportunity is open to both individuals and families. This will be the first monitoring project of the Wingohocking Creek in Philadelphia. Our data will be added to that being collected at 24 other sites along the watershed. If you would like more information about the Streamkeepers initiative, you can click here. If you would like to be part of the Streamkeepers group at Awbury or have any questions about it, click here.

Many other events are planned for the year, including arts and education programming, but you certainly don’t need to wait for a specific event to visit Awbury. We are free and open to the public year round and would love for you to visit us. And do stop by our newly renovated watercourse area and let us know what you think!

Landscape News: Wetlands Restoration Is an Environmental Success Story

by Chris van de Velde, Project Manager

At the southwest corner of Awbury Arboretum there is a unique water feature consisting of a series of wetlands, bog gardens, two ponds, and a stone-lined stream channel. This area is the last remaining above-ground portion of the Wingohocking Creek. Beginning in the late 1800s, 21 miles of surface waters of the creek and its tributaries were enclosed in a combined sewer to make way for City expansion. This burial of the Wingohocking took approximately 40 years to complete—the City of Philadelphia’s most extensive stream enclosure project.

Awbury’s watercourse and ponds were incorporated in Arthur Westcott’s original 1916-19 master plan for the Arboretum. Cowell, a noted landscape architect credited with the establishment of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Pennsylvania State University, created at Awbury a fine example of Victorian-era Romantic landscape and incorporated progressive ideas for slowing and detaining water flows. Interestingly, his 100-year-old detailed design approach conforms to what we now consider best practices for stormwater management: renovation of a meandering stream with detention ponds rather than a channelized water corridor.

creek with stone footbridge

Over the past century, the ponds have degraded, turning into a sort of marshy, muddy area overgrown with invasive phragmites and filled with trash dumped illegally. By 2019, Field Studies groups could no longer visit, because there were hardly any living animals in the murky, smelly water.

With a grant of $310,000 from the Philadelphia Water Department and one of $75,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the reconstruction of the watercourse and ponds commenced last spring. The Water Department agreed that the restoration of the waterway and ponds on Awbury’s property could significantly alleviate the stormwater problems that regularly occur in the Washington Lane and Chew Avenue area. The project was supposed to be finished by early summer 2020, but then COVID-19 erupted. Early work was shut down during the initial pandemic lockdown. When work outdoors was permitted, the ponds were dredged; trash, invasive trees, and weeds were removed; a new waterproof mat material (Bentomat) was installed; and most of the stone edge walls were rebuilt.

When the initial work was complete, the construction team hit another COVID-19-related problem: the manufacturer of the sophisticated filter system that will clean the street runoff from Washington Lane could not resume operations until August, so delivery of this critical part was delayed until late September. Then the overflow inlets required to connect to the City’s sewer system had to be back-ordered and did not arrive until early December.

Did you know:

  • the additional capture areas from which stormwater will be directed towards the pond are calculated to be 13.2 acres, including pervious meadow and impervious paved streets;
  • the anticipated runoff will be more than 27,154 gallons per one inch of rainfall for every acre;
  • Philadelphia has an average annual rainfall of 41.45”, so one acre yields about 1,125,533 gallons of water annually;
  • the amount of water absorbed by a meadow depends on the amount of each rainfall and whether or not the ground is frozen or parched;
  • on an impervious surface, most of the water goes directly into the City’s sewer system;
  • so, while we can’t know the exact amount of stormwater the Awbury watercourse and ponds will capture, we are confident that more than 14,000,000 gallons will likely pass through our system annually.

Now, final construction is expected to begin as weather permits. The digging, earth moving, and filter/sewer work will be done by late March. Since the final sitework cannot be completed until after the last threat of frost, the final project work may not be complete until April. However, you can now see two ponds full of clear water and enjoy watching the final work as it progresses.

In addition to the alleviation of the flooding that occurs on Washington Lane, drawing stormwater off Washington Lane will reduce the amount of pollutants that reaches the City’s sewer system. More than three-quarters of Philadelphia’s residents are served by the City’s combined sanitary/storm sewer system. This situation in especially true in the oldest and densest parts of the City, including the Germantown section where Awbury is located. As stormwater travels over roadways like Washington Lane, it picks up pollutants, and this polluted water mixes with raw sewage in the City’s combined sewer system. When heavy rainstorms produce unusually high overflows, sewage and other pollutants end up in our rivers and creeks, which impacts aquatic life, water quality and scours river and creek beds.

creek with stone footbridge

In addition to reducing the volume and velocity of stormwater to the City’s sewer system, this project also restores Awbury’s historical water feature to its former beauty and function. The finished project will provide valuable educational opportunities for the community and neighboring schools and will demonstrate to the Arboretum’s many visitors why and how stormwater management is so important to Philadelphia.

So, we believe this project will be a win-win-win: for Awbury’s visitors who will enjoy an attractive water feature not found in any other part of Northwest Philadealphia and who will learn something about stormwater management; for neighborhood residents who will see less flooding on Washington Lane; and for the City as it works to reduce the pollutants reaching our regional waterways. Come visit this spring!

New Year, Many Changes

by Branda O’Neil, Director of  Workplace Strategies & Facilities

Awbury Arboretum is a place of nature and people, which means it is always growing and evolving, but there are several note-worthy changes on the horizon as we enter 2021.

You may have already read about the renovation and construction to the grounds in areas like the pond and new pavilion, our fresh yearly theme, and our new executive director. A few other BIG changes happening right now include: a new website, logo, slogan, and name for the Farm.

As you may have noticed, our website has a new look!  With the help of Barholle Web Designs, the Awbury staff redesigned everything from our landing page to our color scheme. Our goals included clearly showcasing the main features of the Arboretum grounds and highlighting what guests should expect when they visit. We hope guests will sample the beauty of the Arboretum with ease as they research our history, register for programming, and learn how they can get involved at Awbury.

As you click around our new website, you’ll quickly spot our new logo and slogan.  Designed by Beth Miner of Mayapple Graphics, the unique shape of the tulip poplar leaf is crisp and simple, and it pairs attractively with our slogan, “Nature for All.”  For the image of the logo, we decided to move away from emphasizing the Cope House, largely because these days the Arboretum hosts visitors in a variety of areas and ways, from family fun at The Farm and in AdventureWoods to relaxing in the witch hazel garden by the historic watercourse.  As we rediscovered during 2020, the outdoors is essential and healing, and the heart of Awbury is providing Nature for All.

Another change you might spot is our new name for the northwest portion of the Arboretum.  The area once called the Agricultural Village is now dubbed “The Farm at Awbury“—a simplified and specified title that helps visitors understand what to expect and how the area functions. While The Farm is still very much a Village—home to a wide variety of partners, from community gardeners and beekeepers to co-op farmers, chickens, and a goat family—“The Farm at Awbury” better communicates its welcoming, family-friendly atmosphere.

We hope these changes will better communicate who and what Awbury is and will welcome our community to experience the Arboretum.

Represent, Represent: A Call for Photos of Black People  and People of Color in Nature

by Sheryl Wright, Awbury Board member

Representation matters. All people engage with the natural world. It is important that we amplify images of Black people and people of color in nature and the ways that they interact with and think about nature and the outdoors. There is a long and rich history of Black people’s engagement with nature and the outdoors. Far too often, however, people of color are literally missing from the photos and unheard within conversations taking place in white-dominated spaces.

Of course, we would love to see photos taken on the grounds at Awbury and we encourage people to visit the Arboretum to do so—but we know nature is everywhere. The ways that people engage with nature don’t have a specific look: for some, connecting with nature and spending time outdoors looks like sitting in the backyard, barbequing in Fairmount Park, or taking a walk around the neighborhood. For others, it looks like hiking a trail, canoeing down a river, or bird-watching in the woods. There is no formula for a photo.

 Nature is for all and nature is everywhere. Submit your photos here. Every month, we will create a slideshow of submitted photos and share them on our FaceBook page and in our email. Help us lift up the images and perspectives of Black people and people of color in nature!

[For all photos of people, especially children, please be sure that you have permission for their likeness to be published]

Capital Improvements: Open-Air Pavilion

by Chris van de Velde, Project Manager

By late spring 2021, Awbury Arboretum will have a new facility for events and programs: an open-air pavilion! We have received a very generous grant from the Rosenblatt Family Charitable Fund to finance the building of a pavilion next to the Education Center at The Farm at Awbury.

The first step in the work related to the new pavilion has been the relocation of our maintenance equipment storage compound. On January 22nd and 25th, the equipment compound’s storage shed and office shed were hoisted onto a trailer and moved to the southeastern end of the Farm. A new fence has been installed around the equipment storage area and, in the coming weeks, water and electric lines will be connected.

The new pavilion will be a post-and-beam structure crafted and installed by the Challenge Program, the carpentry training program that created the spacious green three-bay storage shed next to the Cope House parking lot. If everything goes according to schedule, the pavilion should be available for Awbury and community use by early June. More details about how individuals and organizations can schedule use of the pavilion will be available when we have a definite completion date for construction.

Lest We Forget Tile Workshop

by Hideko Secrest, Leaflet Editor

On October 15 last fall, Awbury Arboretum in partnership with the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum and Karen Singer Tileworks held a workshop on oppression and healing, entitled “Lest We Forget: A Way to Share Our Stories.”

This sold-out tile-making workshop took place outdoors, under the tented patio behind the Cope House, and was attended by a diverse group of people, some artists,  some activists, some neighbors. There was even an entire family present, each with their own idea of what they wanted to commemorate.

The evening began with a short lecture and presentation by Gwen Ragsdale, co-founder of the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum in Germantown. At a table spread with photographs, articles, and shackles used in the slave trade, she talked solemnly and passionately about the artifacts in front of her. She began by saying, “You can’t talk about American history without talking about slavery.” She picked up one of the shackles: “To be able to see an actual shackle, used on a human being—that does something to you. It’s real.” She continued, “You have so many young people—Black, White, Asian—that are shocked into awareness by the death of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter is not just a slogan. We live it.” She paused. “It’s something we experience on a daily basis. To have to sit down and tell your 7-year-old how to act in public is heartbreaking. To see their eyes fill up with tears really affects you.”

She held up photographs and news clippings of lynchings and noted that “White people are looking directly into the camera. They had no fear of anything happening to them.” She intoned the long list of names of innocent Black men and women killed in police violence. Each name rang out in the silence.

“The division we see in our community cannot be sustained,” Ragsdale asserted. “It’s not enough to be non-racist; you have to be anti-racist.” She concluded her talk on a hopeful note, however: “Just be kind to your fellow man,” she urged. “I’m happy and proud to be American. We all owe it to ourselves and our children to make the world a better place.”

From there, Germantown ceramicist Karen Singer took over, handing out slabs of wet clay, tools, cups of water, stencils with words like “Justice” and “Peace” on them. She gave demonstrations of techniques for working designs into the clay tiles, adding or subtracting clay to give it a sculptural feel. She spoke about how forgiving the clay was of mistakes, and that there were no wrong moves. She explained how the clay they were using was meant for the outdoors, and that it wouldn’t crack in the cold. Her hope was that everyone would be able to display their tiles outside, as a testament to their community about the strength of memory and solidarity to resist oppression. Then everyone got to work and it grew quite silent.

After about an hour and a half, the participants took a break and got tea or water and walked around looking at each others’ work. Then the painting on of glaze began, with some choosing to confine themselves to one color, and others using a rainbow of colors. At the end, everyone gathered to look at the projects, marveling at how different everyone’s idea was, and what creative directions everyone’s vision had taken.

Singer commented afterwards, “Part of what was so wonderful was that everybody’s tile was different. There’s such a need to express ourselves and to do it creatively. Creative expression is critical: it can contribute so much to mental health and it can express so much that can’t be put into words.” The tactile experience is also key to this process: “When you put your finger into wet clay, you leave your own mark. It’s nobody else’s. It’s personal. I like to start there and free people up to go beyond.”

Singer took the tiles back with her to fire at her studio. The participants were supposed to gather again in early December to celebrate the final fired and glazed versions, but City COVID restrictions made that impossible. Instead, they stopped by Singer’s studio individually to pick up their tiles. Despite this disappointment, all of those in attendance at the workshop were moved and changed by the experience. For some, it was the first time they had made art since they were children. For others, it was a way of affirming hope in a time of crisis and chaos. For all, it was a way of coming together as a community, while acknowledging the harm of the past.

From the Archives: The Northwest Tract

by Alex Bartlett, Awbury Archivist and Curator

In the photo at right, you can see the parcel of land now known as The Farm at Awbury, as it appeared after a light dusting of snow, circa 1975. The view was taken from behind what is now the Willow Bend Apartments on East Johnson Street.

The sixteen-acre tract of land on which The Farm at Awbury is now located has an interesting history. Historically, the land was associated with an early 1790s farmhouse, known as the Caroline Cope House, at 1011 East Washington Lane. It remained in the Cope family until shortly after Awbury Arboretum was founded in 1916. A short time later, the open field was purchased by the City Parks Association, while the old farmhouse remained in the Cope family. The field’s tradition of being used as a community farm appears to have started with the arrival of World War II, when victory gardens were cultivated there. After about 1960, the parcel, which was often referred to as Awbury’s “Northwest Tract,” entered a period of inactivity, with the exception of the Awbury Community Gardens, which later opened towards Ardleigh Street. The fields became overgrown, and illegal dumping became a problem, particularly near the railroad tracks of SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill East line. Fortunes for the parcel began to change in 2000, with the opening of the quarter-acre Mort Brooks Memorial Farm in partnership with the Weaver’s Way Co-op. The farm was a success and, in 2007, a full-time farmer was hired to manage the farm. Programs began to be developed around the parcel, and Philly Beekeeper’s Guild moved in shortly thereafter. The Pollinator Habitat, originally funded by the Philadelphia Committee of the Garden Club of America, opened in 2010. In 2013, Awbury Arboretum opened its Education Center at the upper end of the parcel, the latter which was then referred to as the Agricultural Village. Since then, the Philly Goat Project has become an integral part of what we now know as The Farm at Awbury and, with the passing of time, it is certain that many other programs will become a part of the history that has made the parcel such a unique and special place in Philadelphia.

Bluebird Boxes at Awbury

by Nancy Pasquier, Field Studies Director

Photo of Eastern bluebird © William Reaume, 2020

Winter can certainly be a beautiful season with bright blue skies, wonderful afternoon shadows and the enjoyment one feels returning home after a nice, brisk walk. I, however, am always glad to see signs of spring’s arrival—bulbs pushing up, buds starting to open, and the arrival of eastern bluebirds.

Thanks to the generous support of the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania (BSP), and especially Marilyn Michalski and Ken Leister, we will be installing bluebird boxes at Awbury later this winter. At this time, the BSP is not receiving any bluebird monitoring data from Philadelphia County, so this is an exciting opportunity to promote birding in the city and to let more people know about our beloved Arboretum.

We are eager to recruit people from the local community who are interested in becoming part of Awbury’s bluebird monitoring group. Monitoring takes less than one hour a week from late February/early March through the fall. It can be done by an individual or a group and, consequently, regular weekly participation is not necessary. There is a chance, though, that weekly monitoring might become a highlight of your week, especially if our efforts lead to the successful nesting of bluebirds. We will provide self-explanatory paperwork and the information we gather will then be shared with the BSP, which keeps annual records for the entire state.

The bluebird box installation will take place sometime mid-week in late February or early March, depending on when it is warm enough to install poles in the ground. Our hope is that those interested will join us on the day of installation during which there will be at least one knowledgeable and enthusiastic representative from the BSP present to answer questions.

The Eastern Bluebird population has declined substantially over the last century but the installation and monitoring of bluebird boxes has begun to improve their numbers. Please consider becoming part of this positive change by joining the nascent Eastern Bluebird monitoring group at Awbury Arboretum. For more information or if you are interested in taking part in this project, contact Nancy Pasquier at npasquier@awbury.org.  Information about the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania can be found  here.

A unique, multi-season outdoor & online series covering ethical wild food foraging, medicine-making, and craft! 

Launched in 2019 in partnership with the Wild Foodies of Philly, this 10-month in-person and online program is designed to introduce participants to the most common 100+ wild edible, medicinal, and craft plants of the Philadelphia bio-region. Monthly sessions include in-class and in-field time to botanically I.D., gather, and harvest useful plants with in-depth sharing on plants’ ecological, nutritional, medicinal, and cross-cultural usage, as well as an online intensive class on at-home preparation.

Wild Wisdom 2021 classes will meet March–December:

In person: Classes will meet on the 3rd Saturday of the month in person at the Farm at Awbury.  One class will run from 10am to noon, and the other from 1-3pm.  Students will register for one or the other time slot.

OnlineThe cooking portion of the class will be online for all students on the 3rd Sunday of the month from 4-5pm.

The first Saturday class will be held on March 20th and the first on-line cooking class on Sunday, March 21st.

Click here to find more information or to register.

On a rainy November 1, 2020, painter and printmaker Julie Kring held a full capacity artist’s opening of her recent botanical works at the Cope House galleries. Admission was timed, limited, and socially distanced, but despite that and the dank weather  the public showed up with enthusiasm to admire her stylized paintings and prints of trees, seedpods, milkweed, and monarch butterflies. The exhibition also featured mandala-like prints of honey locust pods. Though her works are mostly still lifes and landscapes, there is a motion and flow to them, as though they were trying to push their way out of the flat surface of canvas or paper, to reach out toward the viewer.

Kring has an M.Ed. from Penn State University in Art Education with concentrations in Aesthetic Education and Museum Education. She started out as an art teacher in her hometown of Coatesville, and then spent a career of 30 years working in public and private schools from Philadelphia, PA to Seattle, WA to Camden, NJ.

After Kring got married and started a family, she moved to Seattle, and taught art in her children’s elementary school, first as a volunteer and then as the regular art teacher. In 2003, she moved back to the area and was invited to become the art instructor at UrbanPromise, a faith-based school in Camden, NJ, begun by a longtime friend, Bruce Main: “It was a very unconventional school: over the years we attracted a lot of people who were interested in what we do. A monarch [butterfly] enthusiast and award-winning science teacher helped us begin our monarch program. That inspired a lot of my work.” She ended up taking a trip with seven high school students to two monarch sanctuaries in Michoacan, Mexico. She recalls, “That was just a wonderful trip; this was an amazing adventure for students who rarely had been outside the city of Camden.”

While teaching in Camden, she was introduced to noted African-American artist Faith Ringgold. “I worked with her foundation; … I realized the importance of teaching students of color about artists from their own heritage.”  Teaching in schools with a high population of Black families, she has developed a strong curriculum for K-8 students focusing on artists from the African diaspora: “It is important for students to be able to picture themselves in the artwork they study.”

In 2012, while serving part-time as an artist-in-residence at another faith-based school in southwest Philadelphia, Kring decided to focus on her own artistic career: “When I left full-time teaching, I realized it was time for me to begin creating my own art.” She took art classes with Merle Spandorfer at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts and found in her not only a teacher but a mentor. She exhibited her work with The Cheltenham Printmaker’s Guild and The American Color Print Society, and received the Printmaker’s Award at the Annual Cheltenham Center for the Arts member’s show in 2013 and 2015. In 2016, she received the Stella Drabkin Award from the American Color Print Society.

Kring uses a variety of media, but her favorites are oil painting and printmaking: “I love monotypes, collographs, linocuts.” Her subject matter varies, but it almost always includes nature: “Creation has always inspired me, mostly trees, any kind of plants; recently, seedpods.” And, of course, her beloved monarchs: “I still continue to raise monarchs at home every summer; I just gather up some eggs from milkweed, bring them inside, and take care of them until they’re ready to fly.”

The title of her exhibit, “When I Am Among the Trees,” came from a poem of the same name by Mary Oliver. Kring loves the poem, and remembers her father reciting poetry to her on their walks, especially Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”: “I credit him with teaching me about nature.” Though the day of her opening was rainy, Kring was “amazed at how many people came out! I sold at least half of my work.” She was happy to be able to exhibit at Awbury: “I’m always drawn to places with nature and kids. Awbury is such a wonderful place for schools, for kids, for adults.”

Welcome New Staff: Megan Do Nascimento

Megan Do Nascimento has lived in Mt. Airy for about 20 years. She is a yoga instructor and has taught at many area gyms. Then the pandemic hit, and, since she is vulnerable as a cancer survivor, she stopped teaching in person and, like many, moved her lessons to Zoom. When Philadelphia moved into the green phase this summer, she was asked to return to the gym, but she didn’t feel comfortable teaching in-person in indoor spaces. She saw that some instructors were teaching in parks, but she “wanted to have a relationship with a public space.” When she made a post on Facebook about not wanting to go back to the gym and about wishing to have a dedicated outdoor space for teaching, Executive Director Heather Zimmerman saw it and invited her to teach at Awbury.

“She took me on a guided tour of Awbury; I can’t believe I’d never been here after living in the Northwest for twenty years! …. So I said yes, let’s start now!” In the summer there was “a lot of protesting and a lot of people getting shot and the … Black Lives Matter movement” and Do Nascimento was concerned that “I really didn’t want it to be me [a white woman] saying ‘Yoga is the best; it’s going to be the cure for everything.’” So she brought in a diverse group of teachers she knew with whom she worked or collaborated on wellness events. Thus was born the Awbury Wellness Team.

Though it started slowly, with just a few students meeting at The Farm each session in the beginning, word spread quickly, and soon classes sprawled across the Education Center lawn. The Awbury Wellness Team offered classes six days a week: various types of yoga, including family yoga, yoga for bigger bodies, fitness, Zumba, Afro-House dance (a big favorite), and family karate. In the fall, classes moved to the Cope House and some new classes were added: forest bathing and winter walks. No registration or class fees were required, but participants were encouraged to donate to the teachers who were giving their time and expertise.

Now that the program is so well established, it is becoming a permanent part of Awbury’s offerings, and Do Nascimento has stepped up as Awbury’s Wellness Coordinator. She is euphoric about how well the program has taken off: “It’s been great!” she laughed. “I mean, the winter has been challenging, but I think [the program] is a great way to get outdoors—it’s just been wonderful!” She is especially excited about the way the program is attracting near neighbors: “There are people who live a couple of blocks from here that had never been to the Arboretum before they took a [wellness] class here.”

Awbury Adventures Summer Camp

Hands-on experience with nature! Learn wilderness skills and wildcrafting, forage for food, whittle, build fires and shelters, cook over a campfire, play wide games, get to know Awbury’s animals, experience magic – it all adds up to an exciting summer at Awbury Arboretum! Masks and social distancing required for all campers and staff.

6/21-7/2: Camp Katniss I (ages 8-12) & Forest Creatures (ages 6-8)
7/6-7/16: Camp Katniss II
(ages 8-12) & Nature Foragers (ages 6-8)
7/19-7/30: Ilvermorny Camp for Witchcraft & Wizardry
(ages 8-12)
8/2-8/13: Advanced Wilderness Survival
(ages 10-13)

Camp registration opens March 1! Register early for a discount!

Board Member Spotlight: Sara Robbins

Tell us a bit about yourself: where are you from, and how did you end up in Philadelphia?

Well, I grew up in southern Illinois; we had a farm in Pinkneyville, IL, and then we sold the farm and moved to Carbondale. I went to college in Iowa (Grinnell College). After that I was trained at the Univ. of Iowa in the Ophthalmology Dept. in ophthalmic ultrasonography. So I was in the Midwest for a long time. Basically, [ophthalmic ultrasonography] is a technique for diagnosing eye disorders…. usually when a doctor can’t see into the eye very well. I trained under the physician who developed the technique. After that, well, I had my choice of quite a few places. Most of them were in the Midwest and I wanted to try something different. So when I was accepted to the Scheie Eye Institute in the Dept of Ophthalmology at Penn, I was immediately interested. I’m a big history buff and I thought Philadelphia was the place for me! That was in 1981. It was a big jump for me, but this offered a great opportunity. So I stayed, yeah!

When did you first become aware of Awbury Arboretum?

I was not aware of Awbury until I joined the Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers (PGW). I was Outreach Coordinator, … and we were contacted by Awbury to participate in their fall festival [Autumn Harvest Fest]. So I was really just charmed by the whole place. I knew [PGW] had a dye garden there,  but before we came to the fall festival, I had never been there. So I was kind of hooked on Awbury after that.

Can you tell us a bit about your work outside of Awbury?

I’ve been in the medical field ever since [I came to Philadelphia], mostly in management, until my retirement about 6 years ago. I have held several positions at PGW. I’ve been their Newsletter Editor, Education Chair, and I’ve been Outreach Coordinator all along. Our goal at the Guild and my goal is to make contacts throughout the community and introduce people to the fiber arts. After I retired, I really became quite involved in the fiber arts field. I’m an avid weaver and a spinner (kind of a pitiful spinner—you can print that!). I just picked up working on fabric collage, so I’m busy all the time.

Has your work benefited from and/or been influenced by your work at Awbury?

I would say yes, in that in [Awbury’s] Year of Natural Fibers, a friend and I between the two of us taught most of the classes and through that a lot of people learned about Awbury. And a lot of people who came to Awbury joined the Guild. So I think both Awbury and Guild have benefited from the relationship that we have.

What do you think makes Awbury a unique place in the City of Philadelphia?

I have said this many, many times: it’s kind of an unappreciated jewel of the City. It is a wonderful place and I love its dedication to the community and to stewardship of the environment. I’m impressed with what a diverse group of people are involved with and drawn to the place.

What is your vision for Awbury 10, 20 years down the road?

Since I’m new [to the Board], I haven’t probably given it as much thought as I might. I think more people need to know about Awbury, so it’s not just a destination for people in the Northwest, but a destination for people all over the area. I think that we need to work to get the word out there that Awbury exists. I live in the Northwest, and I had never heard of it. I think it would be wonderful if more people who live in the City grew to appreciate it. And the other thing about Awbury: I have an enormous amount of respect for all who work there. I have especially had a lot of close contact with [Executive Director] Heather [Zimmerman] throughout the years and am really looking forward to working with her on programs.