When Marta Rivas-Olmeda and her husband, Jorge Santiago-Avilés, moved into their home in the University of Pennsylvania’s Kings Court English College House, the courtyard was full of concrete and weeds.
“My husband and I are from Puerto Rico, and we also lived in Brazil because of work, so for me to see all this cement was unbearable,” says Rivas-Olmeda, the associate master of KCECH. Her husband is the house faculty master and an associate professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
That was in 1990. Today, the courtyard is replete with fruit trees, herbs, flowers and other plantings, fishponds and plenty of shady benches and tables where students can study and relax. This transformation is owed to the hard work of Rivas-Olmeda, Santiago-Avilés, House Dean Krimo Bokreta, Associate Faculty Fellow Ann Grey and other members of the KCECH community and its Garden Club, whose motto is, “The grass is greener on our side.”
The greening of the courtyard began in the early 1990s, when Bokreta and his wife, Julie, got permission from Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services to garden in a small area in front of their apartment. Rivas-Olmeda and Santiago-Avilés soon joined the effort, using their son’s plastic toy shovels and wheelbarrow to clean out and then plant in another area.
Soon enough, the herbs and vegetables growing outside the house game room began to attract attention from students, who asked if they could help maintain the plantings. In 1998, the Garden Club was born.
Over the years, the garden beds have multiplied and expanded. Rivas-Olmeda, who is the Garden Club chair, and fellow faculty and staff members at the house often used their own money to purchase supplies. Students have also held fundraisers to purchase plants. The club has formed friendships around Penn, including with Tracylea Byford, manager of Penn’s greenhouse and Biopond, and Paul Meyer, executive director of Morris Arboretum, both of whom have donated plants for the courtyard.
In 2005, support from Penn’s College Houses and Academic Services enabled the club to construct storage sheds, build fish ponds and purchase tables, benches and chairs. In 2008, the University selected KCECH as the site of a low-maintenance green roof, complete with educational signs about how the structure helps with water run-off and temperature regulation. And in 2012 club members worked with artist Isaiah Zagar, who founded South Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, to create a mosaic along the courtyard’s walls.
The Garden Club has received two awards from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society through its annual City Garden Contest and an award from the University City District through its Inspirational Gardens contest.
At the beginning of each academic year, Rivas-Olmeda recruits new members by giving a presentation on the club’s history. Each spring, Byford offers a Gardening 101 Workshop, during which students and staff learn how to sow seeds, take cuttings and perform basic plant care. During the school year, members of the club share duties such as watering, weeding, feeding the fish and planting annuals. Together with students, Rivas-Olmeda bakes with the garden’s fruit, as well as lavender and mint. She also offers a yearly soap-making workshop using the garden’s herbs.
The club marked its 15th anniversary in the fall of 2013 with a series of seminars and activities open to the Penn community, including a keynote address by Drew Becher, president of horticultural society.
The club has become part of the fabric of KCECH, and many students have chosen to live there for all four of their years at Penn.
“It’s interesting because a lot of the Garden Club members — the faithful ones, the usual suspects as I call them — are students from the Science and Technology Wing,” says Rivas-Olmeda. “Right now we have three or four Eagle Scout members.”
But for as many club members who are familiar with science, nature and plants, Rivas-Olmeda has had many utter novices join the club.
“We’ve had students who have never gardened who say, ‘Can I name this plant? Because this is the first time I’ve ever put a plant in the ground.”
The beautification work of the garden club extends beyond the walls of KCECH. Community engagement, a priority of Penn President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact 2020, is also a component of the club. Members frequently volunteer with University City Green to plant bulbs and trees and tending to community gardens and other green spaces around the city.
Over the summer, the not-insubstantial watering and weeding duties fall to Rivas-Olmeda, Santiago-Avilés, Bokreta and Grey and her husband, Campbell Grey, KCECH faculty fellow and an associate professor of classical studies.
Rivas-Olmeda says she is often asked by people in other College Houses how to get their own garden clubs off the ground. Her response suggests that there is a good reason why KCECH staff have nicknamed her the “green thumb lady.”
“I say, ‘You can, but you have to have someone there who will embrace it,’” she says. “It requires somebody who is conscientious, who loves nature and wants gardening to bloom. Here in KCECH we are lucky to have students, faculty and staff involved in maintaining the green in and outside our College House.”