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Community Garden Provides Fertile Soil For Engineers' Creativity

September 27, 2012

Walnut HillNeighborhood outreach turned an old SEPTA lot into a community garden at 46th and Market streets. Some ingenuity from a group of freshman engineering students at Drexel University is helping to keep it sustainable. This summer, 11 students from a freshman design class in the College of Engineering took on the challenge of irrigating, tilling and heating the farm in order to allow for year-round growing.

Walnut Hill Farm is a quarter-acre plot of land just off the Market-Frankford subway line in west Philadelphia that was leased from SEPTA by the Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation in 2010. What was once a lot used to park equipment working on the elevated train, is now a fully sustainable community farm. Members of the Walnut Hill Growers Cooperative and the CDC, harvest the farm’s produce and sell it at an on-site farmers market and at the SEPTA headquarters in center city with proceeds going back into the farm.

In addition to six elevated planting beds, the farm is sustained by a rainwater cistern that feeds two 1,100-gallon storage tanks. A solar panel mounted on a SEPTA building adjacent to the subway stop, powers a pump that moves the water from the tanks up to the planted area.

Over the course of their 10-week class, the three teams designed the farming technology specifically for the community farm with the goal of being sustainable solutions for the farm’s future use. A $500 grant from Air Products provided materials to bring the designs to life.

“Our collaboration with Walnut Hill allows students to pursue meaningful hands-on local service learning and see –and eat, in this case- the fruits of their labor,” said Dr. Alex Moseson, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Engineering, who is the group’s advisor.

One team created a low-pressure system of piping and drip tape that transports water from the farm’s solar-powered cistern to the individual beds. The system can now irrigate the entire farm at the twist of a knob and it also conserves water in comparison to using a garden hose.

The second team designed a tool to make it easier for volunteers to till the soil in the elevated planting beds. The students came up with a wood-framed machine that uses “L” brackets as tilling spikes and strategically placed bicycle wheels to propel it along the 50-foot beds.

A third group designed a greenhouse, which will help to extend the growing season. The schematics call for a combination of Mylar plastic sheeting and water barrels to create an enclosure that can maintain a constant temperature. The designs have been given to the CDC for future construction.

“A community partnership like this is a win for everyone involved,” Moseson said. “For the students, they are more motivated, learn a greater breadth of skills and become more a part of the community. For the community partners, they are able to realize concepts they might not otherwise be able to afford, while teaching more than they realize.”

Both the irrigation and tilling systems were installed and tested over the summer. The plans for the greenhouse were completed and delivered to the CDC for implementation. Moseson and his teaching assistants Fela Odeyemi and Ghasideh Pourhashem helped advise the groups.

 

Featured in photo: An irrigation system and a tilling tool designed by Drexel engineering students will help to maintain the elevated planting boxes at the Walnut Hill Community Farm.