Director of Food Services Jeffrey Gump explores the garden at Self Help Movement

Anthony Conte couldn’t wait to get back to his cabbages.

The 56-year-old Germantown resident had planted his first plot of vegetables during his overwinter stay at Depaul USA. Despite graduating from the homelessness transition program in February, he kept returning to campus, month after month.

There were cruciferous vegetables to care for.

“I’m dealing with my own monsters,” Conte said, standing between the boxes of sod that make up Depaul’s on-site urban farm. “Coming out here to do something like that, it’s good for me. It’s very rewarding.”

Across Philadelphia, programs to treat addiction and combat homelessness have infused urban farming into their regular programming. These community gardens have sprouted up at residential facilities all over the city, where nature time is added to the regular regimen of 12-step meetings and job training.

Digging your hands into soil can be very comforting. Horticulture therapy can help people overcome depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, research has shown.

Anthony Conte looks over his crop of cabbage and broccoli at the Depaul residential center Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

So far, close to 10 treatment programs in Philly have officially registered their garden-farms with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

The programs have the potential to encourage healing from pervasive trauma and help combat Philadelphia’s seemingly intractable food insecurity problem. Last year, Germantown’s Depaul chapter produced 2,400 pounds of produce from its backyard.

“There’s something special about planting something and watching it grow that can be very healing,” said Sandra Guillory, Depaul’s program director. “The garden becomes a space for creativity.”

More than just horticulture

Depaul doesn’t mandate that residents spend time in the garden. The farm, led by employment specialist Lynn Giordano, runs on a volunteer basis. “We present this as part of the community involvement,” Giordano said. “Men who have the time and are interested will come out.”

Some use it only when they’re frustrated, and need a quiet place to cool down. Others learn to do actual farmwork, and another group takes advantage of the fresh produce to learn to cook nutritious meals.

Last year, Depaul’s basil plant grew like crazy — leading to several residents learning to make pesto and hosting a pasta feast.

“There are guys who will say ‘I don’t eat vegetables,’” said program director Guillory, “but they’re willing to try something because they saw it growing back here.”

Sprouting greens at Self Help in Northeast Philly Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

West Philly’s Kirkbride Center first planted its food garden three years ago. Clients receiving addiction treatment got the chance to design the beds themselves, and construct them from wood. Of the 70 or so people receiving long-term treatment at Kirkbride, about 25 opt to help out with farming.

“A lot of our clients weren’t nurtured throughout their life,” said Leslie Horowitz, Kirkbride’s director of long-term care. “They’re missing that. And to be able to nurture a plant can be kind of cathartic.”

At Northeast Philadelphia treatment center Self Help Movement Inc., the garden is an opportunity to earn work hours, which helps pay off rent and other fees.

On site, Self Help residents grow a ton of fresh food — everything from collard greens and cabbage to tomatoes and eggplant. They’ve even got two apple trees, which were in bloom last week.

Food services director Jeffrey Gump said the garden teaches farming skills, sure, but also work ethic, acceptance and patience. “They’re just digging and being with the world and the environment,” he said. “It makes them so happy.”

Depaul’s farm in Germantown Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Food for the community

The influx of fresh produce from the garden is a serious bonus, Gump said. He uses all of it in the kitchen, and it’s often enough to supply meals for the center’s 350 residents.

At Depaul, Giordano does the same, subbing out the winter staples of donated canned veggies for fresh. There’s now so much produce during the fertile season that Depaul has more than their kitchen can use. The extra gets donated to another homeless services organization in Germantown called Whosoever Gospel Mission.

And when they still have a surplus, Depaul staffers put the locally grown fruits and vegetables outside for their neighbors. “It’s a good conversation point,” said Guillory, the program director. “It’s a way to de-stigmatize homelessness, because we’re contributing something to the neighborhood.”

Through its partnership with the local Cloud 9 farming group, Kirkbride donates all its produce. But the director hopes to coordinate a plan to sell it at a local farmers market — and then use the revenue to fund addiction and trauma recovery services.

At the Depaul farm on Monday morning, Conte was overjoyed to see the progress his crops had made over the weekend. His plants, he explained, are a productive hobby — one that he can take pride in.

“I’m trying to find things like that,” Conte said. “Things that are satisfying, things that make you happy.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...