Gardener Geraldine

“It’s not as easy as you think it is. Nothing is. But, don’t give up.”



Name: Geraldine C. Petitjohn

Years Gardening: 25

Produce Growing: Peaches, collards

So recently my team and I met with an elder gardener that goes by the name of Geraldine C. Petitjohn who is 85 years old. When we finally got into her stubborn gate that was her entrance to her plot of garden, she allowed, and insisted, that we pick as many peaches as we like from her established peach tree. We entered with a man she calls “Mr. Louis” who was there to pick peaches for his wife, and told me that he was picking peaches from Ms. Petitjohn’s garden for seven years.


When I walked into Ms. Petitjohn’s garden plot, she couldn’t help but apologize for the way it looked. There were weeds everywhere because you know how weeds work, they can never stay in one spot. “Well, I’m really embarrassed and this is really humiliating that I let such a pretty garden be hidden by such ravages.” However, Ms. Petitjohn could see the positive in everything as we made our way to the shade of the tree. “But that means I have good soil.” The second thing I noticed was the walking space of the garden was cover in rugs and carpets, as if I had stepped into Alice and Wonderland and it was time for tea. Ms. Petitjohn explained, “The rugs stay moist, the whole path stays moist at least three days. It means this is saving water.” She had a pretty ingenius set up: the middle of the plot was higher than the edges, eventually leading into a trench. Like a castle with a moat (and minus the alligators), after rain, the water would sit in the trench, but the rugs would absorb the water back upward toward the plants allowing the plot to slightly maintenance itself.

After nodding my head in approval, she went on to explain how she came into gardening. Ms. Petitjohn’s mother raised her, five of her siblings, and three grandchildren. She was taught to count before attending elementary, she was taught to tend the fire behind their house that gave them hot water. 1958 was a tough time for people of color, so Ms. Petitjohn’s family had to do what they had to do to survive in those harsh times. But Ms. Petitjohn pushed through those times and has become a very established, professional, intuitive, intelligent,  and open minded gardener of 25 years.

She started out with two 30×20 plots but traded with Mr. Louis because he did not particularly want to grow cabbage. After getting the plot she said she had to get her soil tested. “The first thing you do is get someone who knows soil to check it for you. That’s free here in Philadelphia.” She informed us the only time you see a white butterfly fluttering around your garden is when you have leafy vegetables like cabbage, lettuce, kale. The butterfly lays eggs that hatch worms that you would know are devouring your plants until it’s too late. I look back on the number of times I seen that pretty butterfly in our garden and thought ‘Hey, that’s nice.’ when in fact it was a sheep in wolf clothing.

“I don’t like to use insecticides. I like to squish em’.” I took a lesson from Petitjohn that day.


As Mr. Louis and I wrestled with the peach tree, Ms. Petitijohn revealed that she has a bachelor science degree in genetics, so she knows how plants change, and react to one another, in certain environments, and with chemicals. I realized Ms. Petitjohn is not only experienced and wise, but very knowledgeable and smart in terms of science and nature. Petitjohn kept impressing me as I munched on a fresh peach and I came to an epiphany that faithful summer day.

I realized that old people got it right.

As I interview Ms. Petitjohn, in India 700 million people were without power, and at first I thought ‘Man, that sucks’ but it hit me that what if Philadelphia had it’s power taken away for a long period of time? What if our dependencies are taken for a long period of time (i.e zombie apocalypse)? I realized that all the elderly people that have learned these skills of gardening due to the need to survive or because it’s a productive, healthy lifestyle are actually releasing themselves from these dependencies that we may not have in the future. We may not have grocery stores to supply us food  in the future, we may not be able to afford the food the grocery stores have, the world is collapsing in on itself due to all the people that depend on things they have no control over.

As I left Ms. Petitjohn’s plot feeling depressed, worthless, and pretty much like an American, I remembered that I have time to learn all these skills to garden like most of kids in America. Petitjohn was a kid when she put her first plant in the ground, and even if you’re an adult it’s never too late. “It’s not as easy as you think it is.” said Ms. Petitjohn, “Nothing is. But you don’t give up.”

Jul 31, 2012 | Category: Eastwick Community Garden, Garden | Comments: none