Nature Heroes: Fishtown Mom Starts “A Wildlife Discovery Garden” in Her Front Yard
Philadelphians are privy to many sights and sounds of big city America. If you leave the windows open on a cool fall night in the Riverwards, you may catch the toot of a passing tug boat, thehum of a speeding train or the distant pop of gunfire.
As urban Americans, we are limited in space and struggle at times even to find parking for one car. Philadelphia has an enormous amount of abandoned buildings. Despite this, we are all still left living on top of each other. According to Planphilly.com, Philadelphia has 40,000 vacant properties, but other websites say the number could actually be closer to 50,000.
When Sandi Vincenti and her husband Daniel were deciding where to live in 2010, they jumped at the chance to own a house in Philadelphia with an empty lot next door.
“This is kind of a lifelong dream come true for us,” Vincenti said. We met Sandi and her three children at their house in Fishtown. “We compromised moving into the city. We fit better in the city. We listen to a lot of punk rock. We’re always down here for shows. That’s where we belong,” she added. “We got a smaller house because it has this lovely space. It’s always been a dream to have something where we can do what we love, environmental education.”
Vincenti took a job at the Philadelphia Zoo out of high school and served as Conservation Coordinator of Children and Family Programs. Vincenti is a certified PA Master Naturalist and is the Playschool Operations Director at By My Side Neighborhood Parenting.
According to Vincenti, she was asked to develop an environmental education program at By My Side and that’s when she co-founded “By My Side Nature Heroes.” She saw this as a perfect chance to expand her already growing native plant reserve, now titled “A Child’s Inspiration Wildlife Discovery Garden.” This past summer, Vincenti received a seed grant allowing her to put on two pop-up environmental educational programs at Penn Treaty Park and Arcadia Commons.
When you step off the sidewalk and into the Vincenti’s garden at 1855 Sepviva Street, it’s easy to forget about the hustle and bustle of inner-city Philadelphia. A helicopter swirls above and the occasional loud radio from a passing car finds your ears, but when you’re surrounded by plants, insects and animals, it’s easy to pretend you’ve been taken away to a spot out in the woods of Upper Bucks or Montgomery County.
It’s hard to miss the recycled wooden structure built on top of a mid-sized car. According to Vincenti, the car was abandoned on the lot when they bought the house. She was able to track down the owner, who she says wanted nothing to do with the vehicle. She decided the car was a stable base to build a treehouse-like fort that she refers to as the “book house.” Vincenti says she wants to have shelves of books about nature for children to read during their experience. The structure is made from reclaimed wood from her husband’s garage door and electric business.
According to Vincenti, the city is aware of what she’s doing and has been supportive. “It seems like we’ve got nothing but great support,” Vincenti said. “We did have to jump through a few hoops insurance wise.” Now the family is deciding on the next phase of their structure. “Now the goal is do we go up another story on it, or we were approached by a company to maybe do a green roof,” Vincenti said.
Last May, Spirit News was on site when Connor Barwin of the Philadelphia Eagles donated and planted a Sweetbay Magnolia tree in the Vincenti’s yard. The Vincenti’s also planted ironwood and red bud trees, which she says are native to Pennsylvania.
Native plants are the focus for Vincenti. “Pennsylvania is really kind of unique because we have a lot of different eco-regions. We’re in this neat area because we’ve got the rivers right there so we’ve got these low lands,” Vincenti said. “In Philadelphia, we’ve got these two really great watersheds, that helps a lot.”
She believes these plants create a well balanced native ecosystem. “The more you have things that are native to the area, the more you’ll have the native predators coming in. They bring that balance back,” Vincenti said “Because we do leave it natural, that is one of our main goals, we have a lot of really cool inhabitants. We’ve had groundhogs. We have a snake den where we get brown snakes. We’ve got tons of insects.”
The Vincenti’s are also part of a native bee sharing program. “The native bees don’t produce honey, but are much better at pollination,” Vincenti said. “They actually pollinate one hundred-times more efficiently than honey bees.” It’s really good for gardens, really good for crops.”
She also has an assortment of reptiles, amphibians and insects on-hand for kids to hold. Vincenti’s son Nathaniel was eager to show us the whip-tailed scorpion, also known as a vinegaroon. It’s a type of scorpion that appears ferocious, but isn’t poisonous and secretes a fluid that smells like vinegar. Sandi also showed us other interesting insects including an orchid mantis, death feigning beetle, baby tarantula and one of several species of cockroach.
Vincenti also showed us her ball python while her son played in a tank with frogs and a gecko. There’s a turtle pond with red-eared slider turtles and she also has an old beer cooler from The Nut Hut Saloon, which she hopes to use as part of an aquaponics system.
According to Vincenti, she is talking with Cornell University on a plan to introduce a species of endangered lady bug back into their space and hopes to maintain balance between native and non-native plants. “I really think it’s important to restore that balance… get everything back up and bring back all those native things that really do belong, it’s healthier overall,” Vincenti said.
She also believes children will have experiences that they will remember forever. “I think children need to learn more. Some of the animals I brought in the beginning weren’t native, it was more like, get kids excited,” Vincenti said. “There was a little boy, deathly afraid of everything, held one of our vinegaroons, loved it, and couldn’t stop asking his mom when he could come back and learn more about it.” •
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