A Work Of Heart in Philadelphia Zone 7A
Our home was built in 1865 in Philadelphia Zone 7A. We love our house. An architect lived here before us and renovated it. It was written up in Interiors Magazine in an article titled Jewel On The Hill, back in 2002.
There was little work to be done on our home upon moving in, which was what we wanted. However, we felt the backyard was a blank canvas needing work.
Starting My Philadelphia Zone 7A Garden
Despite my late mother being a master gardener, I always joked I had a wilted thumb. Wanting to spruce up our backyard, I purchased two raised beds and again tried my hand at gardening. It took me a while to figure out our zone.
According to the old maps, it was 6B. But according to the new maps, Philadelphia is 7B. However, in our little corner of the city, our house actually falls in Philadelphia Zone 7A.
Once I figured that out, I attempted to grow:
The only things that survived we the:
My sage plant nearly died on multiple occasions. Somehow, I kept bringing it back to life. It grew into a stunning little tree. I loved that plant. Last year we left town before the first frost. I planned to insulate it the day we got back.
My First Philadelphia Zone 7A Frost
The night before our return home, we discovered we were exposed to Covid. We had to cancel our flight. Two days later, we tested positive. It was another three weeks before we made it home. The frost came, and my little sage tree perished. I hoped it’d come back to life. Not this time. It broke my heart. I couldn’t let it go. Loving a plant was new for me. In my despair, I…
- Unearthed it
- Cleaned it up
- Shellacked it
- And turned it into a piece of art in our home
I placed it on top of the locker where I keep the belongings of my late mother. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.
When spring arrived, my wife and I discussed remodeling our backyard by putting in a garden. One problem I faced was being able to take care of it. We didn’t have a hose spigot out back that worked, and our retaining wall on one side of our yard had crumbled before we moved into our house.
The previous owner built our fence 4 feet in from our property line. If I was going to commit, I had to do it right. All or nothing.
Building My Philadelphia Zone 7A Garden From Scratch
I rebuilt our retaining wall and moved the fence to our property line, regrading the yard as best as I could. I found a local retailer who had stacks of untreated wooden pallets they were looking to get rid of. I snatched up several and got to work, turning them into raised planter beds.
We started researching hardy crops and created a rough seed map on my computer. Diving into the rabbit hole of research, the science that goes into gardening impressed me. I was hooked. I knew I’d forget to water them. That’s when I learned about drip works irrigation. A self-sustaining garden, with the right choices of hardy crops, was now within reach.
From there, my wife and I planned out the landscaping architecture. I bought a hose, an irrigation kit for raised planter beds, and a timer. I rerouted our spigot line to the backyard and set it up. I had the planter beds, a bigger backyard, and a water source. Next came the soil.
Dirt Cheap Organic Gardening Soil
There was no way I was spending thousands of dollars on soil. I’d read most ‘organic’ soils and compost are not as advertised and may be contaminated with pollutants. That’s when I learned about our city’s organic recycling center, and how I could get 2 tons of soil for under a hundred bucks.
We live on a cliff. There are two flights of stairs to access our back yard from our front door. How was I going to get 2 tons of loose soil from point A to point B? That’s when I found these inexpensive, heavy-duty tarpaulin bags online.
I went to our organic recycling center and got the best soil ever, and the best wood chips for next to nothing. I shoveled what I needed into those bags and carried them down, one at a time. We laid the finishing touches with paving bricks and pea gravel, stood back and took it all in.
The project took way longer than expected. It was now Mid-May, and I was worried I sowed my seeds too late. So there we were, crossing our fingers, waiting for signs of growth. In a few weeks, little sprouts sprung from the ground in spades.
What I Learned About Using Neem Oil
The cabbage moths appeared. I’d been following this YouTube channel where this guy instructs to mix neem oil with garlic and some all-natural dish soap in a sprayer as a method to get rid of unwanted insects. Brilliant. I followed the instructions and the next day, my heart sank.
He omitted the proportions of water to neem oil, and it burned all the plants in my inaugural garden. I was devastated.
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Day by day, everything springing from the ground was blackening and dying. I was ready to give up. A week later, new sprigs appeared. Life returned to my garden stronger than before. I was overjoyed. But this was all turning into an emotional rollercoaster I was unprepared for.
After four months of anxiety, my self-sustaining garden is bursting with green. I thought I wouldn’t spend that much time out back. Yet, I’m out there daily.
Every evening at wine-thirty, my wife puts out her favorite snacks in our kitchen. I step out back and stroll from bed to bed, sampling my crops and snacking there. I love my garden with a passion.
What Would I Do Different in My Philadelphia Zone 7A Garden?
I don’t think I’d do as many root vegetables next time. I have trouble identifying when they’re ready to be cultivated, and they’re not snackable.
Sugar Snap Peas
Next time I think I’ll do sugar snaps. Something that is abundant, ready to eat, and requires less maintenance.
Lemon Balm, Sage & Mint
My lemon balm is out of control. It’s huge. I keep telling myself I am going to harvest that giant bush and dry them all out. We’ll see. I enjoy eating a handful every day, and they go great in our smoothies.
Our sage ended up crowded by the lemon balm. Our mint is thin. I think I’d spread those all out a bit next time.
Spinach & Arugula
My spinach never made it. They never even sprouted, but our arugula was amazing. I’m gonna take all those seed pods and turn them into a seed bank. I have thousands of seeds now.
Kale & Cucumbers
Love our kale. Our cucumber’s taking over our fence.
Tomatoes & Peppers
My cherry tomato bush is bursting with green tomatoes. I’m hoping they’ll turn red soon. My Serranos are fruiting, and they are delicious.
Artichokes & Brussels Sprouts
What I was looking forward to the most was our artichoke and Brussel sprouts. The Brussels plant nearly made it on multiple occasions, but just died. I think a squirrel may be to blame. I just learned both plants are grown in only a few regions. I’ll skip them next time as well.
Last, I’ll dedicate only one, maybe two crops per bed instead of getting so carried away.
Farm to Table in Philadelphia Zone 7A
I’ve learned no flavor is so divine as farm to table. It’s been a roller coaster ride, getting it all put together. But now I am changed. A backyard we spent no time in is now the envy of our neighborhood.
Never thought I’d say it, but I am addicted to gardening now as well as living a homestead lifestyle. I understand now why my mother was so into it. I think she’d be proud of me. I appreciate her now more than ever.
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Randall Downey is new to gardening, but is a homestead for life convert. He was born in New York, raised in Los Angeles, is from Seattle, and now lives in Philadelphia, PA, zone 7A. He has a raised bed garden, consisting of nine self sufficient beds. When he’s not snacking on what growing out of the ground, he’s a prolific freelance writer and editor.