Organic Community Garden Organization Puts Down Roots in North Camden
Erielys Vicente, 18, and Diego Vicente, 12, weeding at the La Esperanza Community Garden in North Camden.
Organic produce may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Camden, but a community gardener in North Camden is hoping to change that.
Jackie Santiago runs two community gardens in the neighborhood, one on the 300 block of Byron Street and another on the corner of Grant and North 6th streets. And, plans to add a third soon at Mastery High School.
In addition to her harvests of peas, tomatoes, onions and more – which are shared with members of the community – Santiago said the colorful lots are a boon to the neighborhood in other ways.
“It’s a place to be tranquil,” she said. “Anybody can come here, sit down, relax and have a quiet place to enjoy.”
The spaces are never locked, and Santiago said locals should always feel welcome in the gardens, even if she’s not there.
But she can often be found maintaining the spaces, which are decorated with lots of colorful artwork and brightly painted tires, because it’s a time-consuming daily task.
“Our biggest jobs are always weeding and watering,” Santiago said. “I weed every day. Even on my days off… There’s no days off for the plants.”
Santiago has around a dozen part-time employees who help her, but she also has a small army of volunteers consisting mostly of North Camden community members and school kids.
But the gardens are also a family affair for Santiago. Her niece Erielys Vicente, 18, and her son Diego Vicente, 12, help her with some of the daily labor.
“We’re planting tomatillos and green beans and on these trees, there’s some peaches and apples,” Diego said.
He prefers the produce from his mom’s garden.
“Some of them use pesticides to get rid of the weeds,” he said of most produce available at the grocery store. “It doesn’t give you the same flavor.”
His cousin agrees the natural approach to farming leads to tastier fruits and vegetables.
“When you go to the store and buy a strawberry, the ones there are mostly sour,” Erielys said. “The ones we get here are really sweet, because we’re not adding anything to it.”
On Saturdays, when the gardens are abuzz with volunteers running all-ages educational programming and cookouts featuring the crops harvested, the cousins help Santiago coordinate the youth program, an important way for the neighborhood kids learn about fruits and vegetables in a city where fresh produce can be hard to come by.
The garden on Grant Street can trace its roots back to 2011 when a local non-profit called Hopeworks founded the garden.
Santiago, a Camden native, returned to the city in 2017 so her family could care for her after she was diagnosed with cancer and needed chemotherapy treatments. It was supposed to be a temporary move, but that’s when Santiago started the garden on Byron Street.
In 2019, she founded the North Camden Community Gardens organization in conjunction with Camden Lutheran Housing Inc., another non-profit.
Santiago’s organization took over operations at the Hopeworks garden in 2020, which is now called the “La Esperanza Garden,” which means “the hope” in Spanish.
She hopes to open the location at Mastery High at some point this year.
But Santiago has her sights set beyond North Camden. She wants to partner with other community gardening organizations to provide resources in eight Camden neighborhoods for other residents interested in acquiring a green thumb.
“The goal for the eight greenhouse hubs is that anyone who wants to start a garden can come to our garden and we assist them with soil, mulch and plants,” she said. “We’ll even have a shared tool library.”
Santiago said the initiative is not off the ground yet, but that she hopes to have it ready soon.
Perhaps most importantly, those interested in gardening shouldn’t be intimidated. Before 2017, Santiago’s only gardening experience was from when she was a member of her high school’s ornamental gardening club.
“I put stuff in the ground and pray that it grows,” she said. “I’m getting better every year.”