POP will be celebrating partner/volunteer Eldredge ‘Rags’ Ragsdale with a Golden Persimmon Award at this year’s Orchard Dinner event on September 19th at The Woodlands. Rags is a true force of nature in his gardening efforts at multiple sites in North and Northwest Philadelphia, including POP partner sites Historic Strawberry Mansion and Awbury Arboretum.
The Community Garden at Awbury Arboretum Agricultural Village, established with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension in 1977, provides flowers, fruit, and vegetables to local residents and annually donates substantial quantities of food to emergency food services through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest program. Around seventy plots are lovingly tended to by many different gardeners with many more on the waiting list, and the whole garden is managed by a dedicated team that includes longtime member Eldredge Ragsdale, known by many in the Agricultural Village as “Rags.”
“They call me the President,” Rags tells me one May morning as he stands above a planting bed of tomatoes, kale, Swiss chard, and lettuce. “I started here working and helping other people out, next thing you know, they want you to be in charge and running the show!”
Originally from Virginia and presently retired, Mr. Ragsdale has been an active gardener at Awbury since purchasing a 10’x20′ plot in the garden for the 2007 growing season. Five years later he was elected President of the Board and has popularly overseen the Community Garden’s growth in the ensuing years. He spoke a little about the teamwork needed to ensure that everyone takes proper care of their plots, especially since there is a large group of new gardeners this year. This is in part so that the garden is in tip-top shape when the judges from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society come to assess the space for the annual Gardening and Greening Contest, which the Awbury Arboretum Community Garden has previously won on several occasions. And it’s easy to see why, standing in the midst of all the garden’s greenery. According to other people I spoke to at the Agricultural Village, the sight of Rags working in the garden is a very regular one.
“I don’t count the time, I’ve just been rolling on through this thing,” he insists. “It’s almost like you retire off a job and then you get another job and you say, ‘dang, is this another job again?’ But it’s an easy job because […] you set your own course. I like this better; I’m outside all day, I can stop when I want to, I can sit down when I want to, and I can go to lunch when I want to— or I can go to lunch and don’t come back!”
This year, Rags is excited to complete a permanent gazebo in the center of the growing space to provide gardeners with better shelter from the weather. Currently, a temporary cloth structure stands in its place, but while it provides shade, rain tends to seep right through the roof. He is also looking forward to covering the cinder block edges of the raised beds with lids that will make it more accessible for senior citizens and gardeners with limited mobility to sit on the edge of their plot and garden comfortably. And, as always, there is the excitement that the fall harvest will bring. One of last year’s big achievements was planting a series of berry bushes near the fence around the perimeter of the garden, in addition to a number of fruit trees including apple and peach. “Hopefully they’ll show up this summer,” Rags tells me, “just bloom, bust out. Once I see that I’ll be like, ‘Wow! Look at what we accomplished this year.'”
In addition to the Awbury Arboretum Community Garden, Mr. Ragsdale has been working in the orchard and gardens at Historic Strawberry Mansion in East Fairmount Park for about the same time, or ten years. “I do the same work down there,” he explains. “I take care of the strawberries, I take care of the fruit trees, I take care of the blackberries, grapes — I love the grapes down there!” Historic Strawberry Mansion is a POP community partner, and the orchard and berry garden there was planted in 2013. Rags has been regularly involved with POP ever since, providing help with planting trees, pulling weeds, and pruning at both Strawberry Mansion and the neighboring Woodford Mansion. Coming together with other people to work with nature comes up regularly during our conversation. Rags says that that’s one of his favorite things about gardening, adding that “once [people] come in this gate, man, their personality is sort of more sober, subdued. It’s almost like in an oratory or a rectory or some place where it’s quiet all day and all you hear is birds, bees, and sometimes people conversing with each other… It’s like a cathedral.”
This POP Blog Post prepared by 2019 POP Intern Piotr Wojcik.
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