Four senses and a vision. That’s all Andrew Huggins needed to grow The Table Spread, an organic garden located on a dormant stretch of land in West Philadelphia.
Huggins has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that made him legally blind at the age of 35. But that doesn’t keep him from knowing his way around the red cabbage, collard greens, squash, tomatoes, basil, pumpkins and watermelons planted around what's left of a decrepit basketball court behind the Philadelphia Masjid mosque and school at 4700 Wyalusing Ave. With help from a few friends, Huggins took over the garden in 2010, and grew it out from a few spare tomato plants to 1,000 square feet of aromatic vegetables and herbs.
But gardening without eyesight presents a few challenges. It's simple math, he says: For watermelons, plant the seeds every 26 inches. "My problem is keeping a straight line.” Weeds present another challenge: his hands have a hard time distinguishing “where the weed at and where the plant at.” So he laid out some weedblock, a type of plastic sheeting through which the weeds stick out as they grow.
Huggins saw his first bumper harvest last year. He gave it all away to neighbors, and to the mosque’s students, who’ve eaten their share of tomato sandwiches. The next harvest will go the homeless. But eventually, he hopes to recoup some of the money he’s invested in the garden — funded by his night job selling water ice at a Mount Airy playground — and sell some of the produce.
Meanwhile, he’s found plenty of ways to connect with his greens.“You can feel the plants, you can smell the tomatoes,” he says. “When you water ‘em the plants will speak to you and say thank you,” he adds, referring to the smell they give off when they come in contact with the water and sunlight. In fact, gardening has refined his other senses. He attuned his nose to recognize the different plants, and also softened his touch by handling delicate vegetables. Maybe that’s also why his gardening experience reaches transcendental heights. “I see myself — you can see yourself in the garden.” Plants are just like us, he says. Tomatoes, like some people, need to be enclosed in cages, “else they go wild.”
A former Black Panther, Huggins says that gardening suits his ideals of self-reliance. He wishes his community were more aware of the genetically modified organisms and processed foods they ingest. And he says he's sorry that many have turned their back on gardening. “When you mention farming to them, they equate it with slavery.” But, he says, “one of the ways to gain economic power and political power is through land.”
He’s not the only one to think that. Imam Kenneth Nuriddin, whose mosque owns the land, would like to strip off the remaining patch of concrete and turn the entire space into an Islamic garden — a place for spirituality that would also lower the carbon footprint. “The idea of growing your own food is a spirit that’s beginning to resonate especially in urban area,” he said.
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