A few years ago, Elmira Smith and her Kensington neighbors got tired of looking at the vacant lot on their block, an overgrown tangle of weeds and trash, and decided to take action.

So, they did what good neighbors do. They pitched in, filled dozens of trash bags, and held volunteer days to build beds and plant flowers on what it turned out were actually three adjacent, long-abandoned parcels. It took two seasons to get the grass going, but they eventually had a plush emerald lawn.

Then, in November, a sheriff's sale notice appeared on one of the properties, which it turned out carried thousands of dollars in tax debt.

"Who wants to do all this work and find out it will be at risk?" Smith asked.

Community gardens like this one have been, researchers say, key to stabilizing Philadelphia's blighted and disinvested neighborhoods over the years and have even reduced violent crime.

But now that land values are rising, it's a race against development to preserve many of those green spaces.

The Philadelphia Land Bank — a 4-year-old city agency many hoped could help dispose of city-owned land and clear old tax debt on private properties to ready them for new uses — has a massive backlog blamed on inadequate staffing.

Meanwhile, a growing number of gardens are being lost to sheriff's sale or private sale.

Now, advocates are taking proactive measures of their own: They're training a small army of lawyers to represent gardens pro bono, and they've launched a pilot program to support gardeners so that when the time comes, they have the stable volunteer corps and infrastructure in place to qualify for long-term preservation in the Neighborhood Gardens Trust (NGT), the nonprofit land trust that supports community gardens.

On a blustery April day, NGT executive director Jenny Greenberg stopped by Smith's garden, one of five in that pilot program, called the Preservation Pipeline.

"The intention," she said, "is to get threatened gardens to meet NGT's criteria so the garden can be considered for permanent preservation — because permanent is a long time."

Greenberg estimates that more than 100 gardens around the city are at risk. The pilot is focused on gardens in gentrifying areas and in low-income communities that are underserved by access to grocery stores and parks. Gardeners attend the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Garden Tenders training course, and receive extra support with things like outreach to new members and key allies, such as district City Council members.

Smith, for one, is hoping it's the first step toward preserving her neighbors' hard work.

"We are willing to fight for what we have done in this space," she said.

Lately, that fight has grown more urgent.

The sheriff's sale on her Amber Street garden was postponed — but it could be rescheduled at any time, without posted notice, requiring constant vigilance.

And that same pattern is playing out at gardens across the city, making it hard to keep up.

A parcel in the Growing Home garden, farmed by Burmese and Bhutanese refugees in South Philadelphia, was lost to a sheriff's sale last year in that very manner, Greenberg said, leaving officials scrambling to save it with a land swap.

The gardens are also vulnerable to other threats, as rapidly appreciating land values are finally making it worthwhile for absentee owners to pay off back taxes and sell the land.

La Finquita, a garden in South Kensington, was sold quietly after a developer tracked down a descendant of the landowner. The gardeners recently ended a lengthy legal battle in a settlement, and announced they'll shut down for good at the end of the month.

And St. Bernard Community Garden, which for decades has tended two large adjacent parcels in Cedar Park, staved off sheriff's sales for four years on one of its lots, before Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell stepped in with $71,000 in funds to preserve it in 2016. But then, just this month, the second parcel was sold for $100,000.

Anna Weisberg, 30, one of the gardeners, said that if the city had responded to pleas to intervene a few years ago, they might have been able to save the parcel, which had been tax-delinquent for years.

"There's a sense of frustration that the Land Bank isn't really up and running yet," she said.

Now, though, there are more advocates on the case.

Ebony Griffin of the Public Interest Law Center recently ran training for two dozen lawyers on garden legal issues. She's also running clinics for gardeners who need legal assistance. Then, PILC will match the gardeners with attorneys.

Griffin already works with about 10 gardens through PILC's Garden Justice Legal Initiative, but said the need has exploded. She fields at least two calls per week from growers — far more than she can help.

The pro bono lawyers can step in to file legal paperwork or negotiate with debt collectors, city agencies, or the Land Bank.

But one critical problem remains: Even if everyone's on board, funds to clear the tax debts of these properties are scarce.

"A lot of it is about money, and it's about the city as a whole not valuing garden space as worth the monetary investment," Griffin said.

Gardeners involved in the Preservation Pipeline pilot, attending an evening class at PHS, were keenly aware of that.

"What's our pitch?" asked Jason Smith, 31, who is working to revitalize the 40-year-old Smart Garden in Belmont.

The garden's 90-year-old founder, Earl Smart, handed over the keys four years ago. The property is not currently facing a sale, but Smith wants to be prepared. "One of the reasons I'm here is so I can be more clear about expressing the value."

Part of the appeal of preservation with NGT is that gardens will have long-term protection from such political and market whims. As well, the gardens are tax-exempt and provided with insurance coverage, education, and help with physical improvements like fences, raised beds, and water lines.

The problem is that Greenberg has to make sure the gardeners are ready to hold up their end of the deal.

Some of NGT's oldest acquisitions, dating back to the early 1990s, have fallen by the wayside as the first generation of gardeners moved or died. Now, she's trying to drum up a new infusion of energy for places like the Concert Garden at 20th and Ellsworth Streets, which recently formed a new friends' group and received a design grant from the Community Design Collaborative.

These gardens are often modest, green monuments to a neighborhood's civic history.

For Lynn Peterson, the garden she tends in Kensington is a living memorial to her father, Robert, who planted it years ago on the land where their family home once stood and on the abandoned plot next door.

Lynn Peterson in the garden she tends in Kensington. Half of it is on land where her family home once stood. The other half is now threatened by an impending sheriff’s sale.
SAMANTHA MELAMED
Lynn Peterson in the garden she tends in Kensington. Half of it is on land where her family home once stood. The other half is now threatened by an impending sheriff’s sale.

When he grew old and weak, she sat by his bedside every day and listened as he gave instructions about the garden. On Aug. 9, 2012, he died. Peterson, once a reluctant gardener, kept planting — tomatoes in milk-crate planters and flowers in hanging pots made from tires split into half moons. All summer long, she supplies her neighbors with collards, onion, eggplant, and cabbage.

"My dad worked hard," said Peterson, 53. "This is his dream."

As well, said Rodney Mobley of the New Kensington Community Development Corp., "This garden was a safe haven for a lot of the youth in the area."

In January, the abandoned parcel was posted for sheriff's sale, with a minimum bid of $24,000. Peterson said she's debating her options, including NGT's Preservation Pipeline.

Greenberg warned it's a long path but thinks it's worth the effort.

"Now is our chance to shape the city we want in the future," Greenberg said. "Otherwise, we're just going to get the city we get."