A loving community The courtyard between English House and Kings Court used to be a concrete wasteland until the efforts of faculty members Marta, Krimo, Julie, and others, along with several college house residents, transformed it into a beautiful, budding garden.


the grass is greener on our side

KCECH Garden Club was established in the Fall of 1998 by Marta E. Rivas-Olmeda, KCECH Associate Master, Linda Nurra, Graduate Assistant (GA), Peter Burchhardt, House Manager, Krimo Bokreta, House Dean, and Professor Jorge J. Santiago-Avilés, the house Faculty Master. During the early 90’s, the KCECH courtyard consisted of a few unattractive, weedy lawn areas surrounded by cement. The lack of flora made the courtyard unappealing, and at that time there were no benches, tables, or chairs for students to make use of to study, socialize or simply relax and enjoy nature. Even insects and birds were foreign to the courtyard, as there were no plants for the insects to extract nectar from. In addition, very few spots were available for birds to build a nest. However, the strong commitment of the house faculty, staff, and Garden Club members generated the power to change KCECH from a plain cement place, to a green and lush ecosystem! How did the transformation process start?

The transformation process of our courtyard started before KCECH Garden Club was created. Krimo Bokreta and his wife Julie requested permission from Facilities to garden a small area of the courtyard next to their apartment. Facilities granted permission, and this was the first area in our courtyard to undergo change. The Bokretas’ cultivated the soil and embellished it by planting impatiens, lily of the valley, bamboo, holly bushes, and a Japanese maple tree. They money to buy gardening supplies, plants, bushes, and the tree came from the Bokretas’ pockets.

The second spot to get a makeover was a weedy area right in front of KCECH Game Room. This unattractive plot was the designated site to collect all the trash our residents left behind when moving out of KCECH. The poor spot seemed to be pleading for help every time you look at it; a plea that was heard by Marta and Jorge. They used their toddler’s plastic shovels and wheel barrow to cultivate the soil and clean the area. These tools proved to be effective. However, Sebi (short for Sebastián) wanted then back, and Marta and Jorge decided it was time to buy real gardening tools.

The third area to experience renovation was a small patch on the south side of the courtyard. Professor Toni Bowers, our Faculty Fellow at the time, and her son Graham, dug out big rocks from that small spot. They replaced the rocks with beautiful hydrangeas. By monitoring the soil’s ph, the hydrangeas bloomed either in a blue or pink color. These bushes added much green and color to the petite garden bed. Like the Bokretas, Professor Bower also used her own money to buy gardening materials as well as the hydrangeas.

The amount of things buried in the site worked by Jorge and Marta (in front of the Game Room) was incredible! They ranged from pencils, pens, sharpeners, rulers, rusted screws and nails, to Penn ID’s, packets of soy sauce, plastic silverware, makeup, costume jewelry, and coins. Sebi had a blast every time Marta and Jorge worked the site, as he enjoyed digging the soil for worms, as well as “treasure” (e.g. coins, rusted screws, etc.). Like their colleagues, Marta and Jorge used their own money to buy gardening materials, seeds, and pots. They turned their apartment into an herb and vegetable nursery, growing basil, mint, oregano, rosemary, lavender, sage, squash, pumpkin, and tomatoes from seeds. All the herbs and vegetables were transplanted into the ground in the late spring, once the ground wasn’t frozen anymore. The herbs grew lush and green, and there was the first crop of vegetables. On one occasion, Marta was in the courtyard, pruning the squash and pumpkin vines. A student that was passing by stopped to ask her, “Why are you killing the only green we have here?”

“I’m not killing the plants,” Marta answered. “In fact, there was nothing but weedy grass in this area. These are squash and pumpkin vines that my husband and I planted here. Once they bloomed, I had to use a Q-Tip to pollinate them, because there are no insects here to do that work. I’m pruning them now, so they continue to grow healthy and yield more produce.” The student laughed when she heard Marta’s method to pollinate the squash and pumpkin flowers. However, she asked if she could be of help. From this moment on more students began to appreciate the gardening efforts made by the faculty and staff, and showed interest in creating a Garden Club.

Linda Nurra, Graduate Assistant (GA) at the time, and Peter Burchhardt, the House Manager, were the first two student members of KCECH Garden Club. Determined to see more green around, Linda and Peter did a lot of gardening with Marta, recruited students, and helped spread the green to their floor lounges. In fact, Peter became the first Student Coordinator of the KCECH Garden Club. This position involves recruiting students for the Garden Club, plus the coordination and advertisement of gardening activities for our residents inside and outside KCECH. When the student coordinator graduates or if she/he leaves KCECH before graduating, another member of the Garden Club is selected for this position.

I n 2007, Professor Cam Grey became KCECH Faculty Fellow, and his wife Dr. Ann Elizabeth Vernon KCECH Associate Faculty Fellow. Being green friendly oriented, they joined our Garden Club. Since then the Grey’s helped, and continue to help the Garden Club in planting, pruning, and watering our trees and plants.

into the courtyard

the grass is greener on our side

Our first gardening activity was called “Into The Courtyard,” an activity that still takes place every year at KCECH. Garden Club members, faculty, and staff clean our courtyard of fallen leaves and weeds; cultivate its soil, and plant perennials and annuals according to each season. As our Garden Club continued to grow, more gardening beds began to appear in the weedy places of KCECH courtyard and front entrance. However, our garden beds didn’t have a retainer wall to help contain the soil in its place every time it rained or the plants were watered. A solution to this situation was needed. At that time, the construction of Penn’s Bookstore and the Inn at Penn was completed. Yet, a lot of leftover bricks were piled on the sidewalk. Linda and Peter approached one of the workers. Once they explained the soil erosion problem in our garden, they asked the fellow if it was possible to take some of the leftover bricks. The worker allowed them to take a few of the bricks. They were heavy, but their weight didn’t prevent Linda and Peter from bringing a few into KCECH. Using their backpacks to transport the bricks, they each carried two or three bricks at a time to the college house. A few trips later the site in front of the Game Room had a line of bricks at its edge to help prevent soil erosion.

biosphere square garden is created

the grass is greener on our side

Students from the Biosphere floor got enthusiastic about gardening, and many became Garden Club members as well. They adopted another area of the courtyard and donated money to buy perennial plants, evergreen bushes and an apple tree. These were planted in their adopted area, which later on was named: The Biosphere Square Garden.


the grass is greener on our side

The courtyard, with its colorful flowers and evergreen bushes was now looking beautiful, but in order to make this space more useful for our residents, tables, chairs, and benches were needed. Thanks to the initiative of David Levin (a KCECH resident at the time and member of the Undergraduate Students Assembly) the lack of furniture in our courtyard became history. The Undergraduate Students Assembly bought us the first table and chairs for our courtyard. In addition, KCECH students, staff, and faculty reached out to different offices and organizations within the Penn and Philadelphia community to make this project a reality. For instance, a proposal was submitted to Doug Berger, Director of Penn Housing and Conference Services, asking for funding. The three main components of the proposal were:

  1. The beautification of the KCECH front entrance and courtyard
  2. The creation of educational seminars related to gardening and environmental topic to foster peer education and experiential learning, as well as the participation of our students in community gardening activities inside and outside of KCECH
  3. The beautification of student lounges, rooftop lounge, student rooms and other house areas

As a result of this cooperation and vision of a common goal funds were obtained, and a pilot study was implemented, with the objective to bring more green and sustainability to our college house. The funds from the proposal helped the Garden Club buy more plants, bushes, and some small gardening equipment, such as sicateurs, pruners, gloves, shovels, hoses, and a few more benches. We also received non-monetary help from other sources. For instance, University City Green, also known as UC Green, donated several beds of impatiens, which were planted in the shady areas of KCECH courtyard. Dr. Paul Meyer, Director of the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania donated some forsythias, yew bushes, and lilies. Tracylea Byford, Director of Penn’s Biopond, Greenhouse, and Kaplan Animal Facility donated lots of annuals and perennial plants to our cause as well. Kris Kealey, Penn’s Urban Park Manager, and Bob Lundgren, Penn’s Landscape Architecture, asked the Garden Club to make a list of plants and bushes we would like to have in our courtyard. They not only provided all the plants we requested, but Kealey also sent some labor force to help Garden Club members put all the acquired plants, bushes, and trees in the ground. In addition, Bill Gross, Urban Park Supervisor from Penn’s Facilities Operations and Maintenance Department sent his ground crew to mulch KCECH front entrance and courtyard as well. Now a days, the garden is maintain by KCECH students, staff, and faculty, with help from Penn ground crew. The crew comes to mulch the courtyard and front entrance, and prune our trees as needed.

CHAS contribution

the grass is greener on our side

In 2005, KCECH Garden Club received a great contribution from Penn’s College Houses and Academic Services (CHAS). Professor Phil Nichols, Director of CHAS at the time, provided the funds and labor force to convert two shabby, underused spaces in KC into two useful Garden Sheds. This is where we now store our gardening equipment. Furthermore, he provided KCECH with a grant that enabled us to buy more tables, chairs, benches, pots, soil, plants, material to build two small ponds, and fish for them. The smallest pond is seven square feet and the larger pond is 36 square feet, with a depth ranging from twelve to eighteen inches.

citywide garden contest

the grass is greener on our side

When the summer of 2005 arrived, we decided to submit our garden to the City Garden contest in Philadelphia, within the flower and vegetables Combination category. This is an annual contest sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. We came in third place within our category. Not bad at all, as KCECH garden was one of over 500 entries. In addition, the judges praised the hard work done to create a “charming, peaceful and welcoming garden,” calling it also “a welcoming Oasis.” They also gave us recommendations to make our garden win 1st place in future competitions. Pictures of our garden were displayed at The Liberty Place building in Philadelphia.

In 2010, we came in the second place within the community category. Once more the judges praised the hard work of KCECH gardeners stating, “Faculty and students have created an inviting and attractive garden in the University City Courtyard. It is the variety of flowering plants and the stellar maintenance work that makes this a winning entry.” Pictures of our garden were displayed at The Gallery at Market East, also in Philadelphia. We yet have to win that first place!

KCECH gets its green roof

the grass is greener on our side

All of the Garden Club accomplishments led to yet another one: a green roof for KCECH. The roof was a great gift from the University of Pennsylvania to its greenest college house on campus. This fantastic low-maintenance green roof is located on the rooftop of our English House, and was inaugurated on September of 2008. It not only makes our college house even more beautiful, but also helps to prevent water leaking from the roof into our students’ rooms, and helps to keep the temperature in the rooms balanced.

As a result of our beautification project, KCECH now receives plenty of visits from a variety of birds including robins, starlings, sparrows, hummingbirds, cardinals, and red tail hawks. Our garden is also a home to monarch and swallowtail butterflies, ladybugs, bumblebees, fireflies, and many other insects, birds, and bugs. In essence, our small ecosystem is now a sanctuary to a variety of fauna and flora, and KCECH looks more like a home than a college house.

educational component

the grass is greener on our side

The support of staff and faculty outside of KCECH has been very valuable in educating our residents on the importance of having a greener and sustainable environment. As a result, we offer our residents and staff a gardening 101 workshop, a soap making workshop, seminars related to gardening and environmental issues in general, visits to the Morris Arboretum, Penn’s Biopond, the Bartram Garden and the Philadelphia Flower Show.

The Gardening 101 Workshop

Our first Gardening 101 Workshop took place in the fall of 1999. It was offered to KCECH students and staff with the goal to teach them the benefits of having plants and trees in our environment. Mike Hardy, member of the Baltimore in Bloom Garden Club, and Esaúl Sánchez, former and first director of University City Green, also known as UC Green, were the first collaborators to do this workshop for us. Tracylea Byford, Director of Penn’s Biopond, Greenhouse, and Kaplan Animal Facility provided the plants’ cuttings for the workshop. This workshop was a complete success. Students learned the scientific and common name of the plants used in the workshop, had the option to select which plants’ cuttings/seeds to plant, and were taught how to care for them. Afterward, the Gardening 101 workshop became an annual tradition in KCECH, taking place the week after Penn’s Spring break ends. Tracylea Byford and her Greenhouse Technician have been offering the workshop to students and staff on a yearly basis. They are both important teammates in teaching KCECH’s students and staff how to plant cuttings/seeds or re-pot a houseplant they might already have in their rooms. Another team member helping us with the Gardening 101 Workshop has been Ruth Kelley, Office Manager for Penn’s Facilities Planning and Operations. Every year, Ruth sends a crew to pick up the gardening materials and plant cuttings from Penn’s Greenhouse, and have them delivered to KCECH.

When we first started offering the Gardening 101 Workshop, only students attended it. At present, workers from KCECH cafeteria also participate in it. Furthermore, during the spring of 2013, Rebecca Golpe, KCECH Front Desk Information Center Manager, as well as managers from other college house information centers attended our Gardening 101 Workshop as well. Thus, the green continues to expand, reaching other places outside the KCECH community.

Best-Kept-Plant Competition

KCECH’s Best-Kept-Plant Competition is another outcome of the Gardening 101 Workshop. The students participating in the workshop take whichever plant cutting or seeds they choose to plant, and are given the option to enter KCECH Best-Kept-Plant Competition. An award ceremony takes place towards the end of the spring semester, in which the green efforts of participants is recognized. The winners are awarded a certificate, as well as a 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize. The prizes consist of environmentally friendly gifts made of recycled materials (e.g. pencil cases, picture frames, bookmarks, paperweights, and small books related to gardening and environmental issues in general).

A “Tallest Trees From Around The World” Seminar

Dr. Paul Meyer, Director of The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, offered an educational seminar to our students and staff titled: "Tallest Trees From Around The World." The subject of tallest trees from around the world is one of Dr. Meyer’s areas of expertise. Thus, the seminar was very informative and engaging as well. Our students were able to learn how to identify a tree by its leaves, height, and the part of the world in which they are found. Our residents also learned the history of The Morris Arboretum, as well as how to get to it.

Visit to Professor David Pope’s Garden

During the fall of the year 2003, Dr. David P. Pope, Professor of Material Sciences and Engineering at UPenn, and member of the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) invited KCECH Garden Club members to a sit down dinner at his house. This was an amazing experience for all the club members, as we not only got to have a delicious homemade dinner prepared for us by Professor Pope and Myrna, his wife, but also because we were able to see the magnificent garden surrounding their house. A garden that had recently been featured in the Good House Keeping magazine!

A Delicious Apple Cake Makes History

The apple tree planted in The Biosphere Square Garden bloomed; and we harvested hundreds of this delicious fruit. We made and enjoyed apple pie, apple cake, apple cobbler, and baked apples. On one occasion, a very prominent scientist visiting Penn came to KCECH to do a presentation. Marta and Sam Riggs (a KCECH resident and Garden Club member) made a delicious Apple Cake at Marta’s apartment. They took it to KCECH’ s Private Dining Room (PDR) where the presentation was taking place. The scientist and his wife gave us an excellent review regarding the cake’s flavor and appearance. They even had a second serving! Having such a success with the apple tree, we also planted in our courtyard the following fruit trees: apricot, black cherries, peach, and figs. We also have blueberries, raspberries, and blackberry bushes, as well as strawberries. In addition, we planted a dwarf mandarin tree, lemon tree, bananas, and date palms. These tropical trees were planted in big pots and are moved inside the college house during the wintertime. They go back to the courtyard during the spring, summer and early fall.

Soap Making Workshop

In the fall of 2012, KCECH Garden Club and Lydia Kumpa, our Cafeteria Manager, collaborated to offer our residents the first Soap-Making Workshop in our college house. The main ingredients were herbs from our courtyard’s garden and materials from the cafeteria (e.g. orange, grape and lemon rings, poppy seeds, ground almond). Our residents love the idea of making soap with fresh herbs from our garden, either for them to keep or to give as presents during the Holidays. Due to the success of this workshop, we offered it again in the fall of 2013, and plan to continue offering it in the years to come.

annual presentation

the grass is greener on our side

Called "From Plain Cement to a Green Lush Ecosystem: The Transformation of KCECH Courtyard", this is an annual presentation given each Fall of each academic year by Dr. Marta E. Rivas-Olmeda, head of KCECH Garden Club. The purpose of this presentation is to educate students about the transformation of KCECH courtyard since the Garden Club was established. It also serves as a venue to recruit students for the Garden Club.

Isaiah Zagar Mosaic Mural in KCECH

the grass is greener on our side

Marta, chair of KCECH’s Garden Club proposed to garden club members and KCECH house faculty and staff, the creation of a Mosaic Mural in KCECH courtyard’s cement walls. The installation of the mural would be a hands-on-experience activity. The rationale behind the proposal was that KCECH participants would not only learn how to create the mosaic, but that our courtyard would also have something beautiful and colorful for residents, faculty, staff, and visitors to enjoy during the wintertime. The idea of the mural was well received by Garden Cub members. Marta then contacted well-known Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, founder of “The Magic Gardens” in South Philadelphia. After paying a visit to our college house, Mr. Zagar agreed to do the mural. The scope of the project was then discussed with Mr. Zagar and Penn’s Facilities personnel. The latter granted permission to install the mural. Thus, in July 2012, Mr. Zagar, some of his volunteer workers, and KCECH Garden Club members installed the mural in one section of KCECH courtyard.

Garden Club 15th Anniversary

the grass is greener on our side

To celebrate KCECH Garden Club 15 year anniversary (1998-2013) a series of events were planned and hosted in KCECH:

  1. A Biosphere Forum featuring Drew Beche, who became the 36th President of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) in 2010. This event not only opened the celebration of our Garden Club 15 year anniversary, but also launched KCECH Biosphere series "How Do We Change The World." The event took place on October 22nd 2013 in KCECH 1938 Lounge. KCECH students and the Upenn community at large were invited to listen and exchange ideas with Mr. Becher regarding how his work, and that of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) have helped make the city of Philadelphia a greener friendly place for all to enjoy. Mr. Becher expertise as a landscape architect and business manager, as well as his leadership skills was well received by students and staff attending his presentation. Its worth noting that “under his leadership PHS has initiated the Plant One Million campaign to restore the region’s tree canopy; expanded the City Harvest program, which provides fresh produce to more than 1,000 families in need each week during the growing season; initiated the PHS Pop Up Garden projects; and introduced exciting new features at the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show” (http://phsonline.org/about/leadership/drew-becher). Marta E. Rivas-Olmeda made cookies using fresh herbs (lavender, mint, sweet basil) from KCECH garden for this presentation.
  2. Marta E, Rivas-Olmeda with help of Rebecca Golpe, KCECH Residential Services Manager, created a Garden Club Poster featuring the transformation of KCECH courtyard. They also created Garden Club Bookmarks. The poster was exhibited during Mr. Drew Becher’s presentation. The bookmarks were given to students and staff attending the event.
  3. Melanie Murphy, a sophomore student at UPenn and KCECH 2013-2014 Academic Manager designed KCECH Garden Club Brochure. This brochure highlights the Fauna and Flora that now exists in KCECH front entrance and courtyard.
  4. Professor Rebecca Bushnell (former Dean of the College) gave a presntation about “English Gardens” on October 22nd 2013 in KCECH Private Dining Room (PDR). Marta made lavender and chocolate chip mint cookies for this presentation.
  5. Professor gave a presentation about Japanese Gardens October 25nd 2013
  6. Professor gave a presentation about Chinese gardens on November 19th 2013.

Volunteer Work Inside/Outside KCECH

Every year, KCECH Garden Club members volunteer to work with University City Green (UC Green), a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading the green in Philadelphia. Our garden club members help clean the Woodland Cemetery (a National Historic Landmark District founded in 1840), plant bulbs and trees, and maintain gardens within schools, churches synagogues, and parks, located within the West Philadelphia Community.


the grass is greener on our side

The Grass is Greener on our Side: Gardening, Sustainability, and Greening Efforts, A College House Experience at the University of Pennsylvania. By Marta E. Rivas-Olmeda, Seth Shannin, M’hamed Krimo Bokreta, & Jorge J. Santiago-Avilés. Paper submitted and accepted for presentation at the 35th Annual Conference, of The Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) Conference Theme: Sustaining the Vision: Nurturing Ourselves, Caring for Each Other, Preserving the Planet, February 11-14, 2010 Portland, Oregon.


This paper focuses on the positive results obtained from a pilot study related to gardening, sustainability, and greening efforts in and around Kings Court English College House (KCECH), one of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) college house residences. The pilot study involved several purposes: beautification of our college house grounds, peer education and experiential learning, relationship and community building, fostering student leadership that continues well beyond college life, creation of a Garden Club and green environment, and psychological and health benefits for our community. To help achieve these purposes, the KCECH faculty and staff divided the work that needed to be done into four phases: 1) Beautification of our college house grounds (entrance area, courtyard), 2) Educational Component and Development of Leadership Skills, 3) Beautification of the College House Interior, 4) Expand our gardening, sustainability, and green efforts inside and outside of KCECH. In addition, this paper also discusses the psychological and health benefits of gardening in our KCECH community. Two measurable effects are immediately observed: a very friendly student response to the changes, and their involvement and participation in the project. In essence, the process of making Kings Court English College House greener led us to nurture ourselves, care for our neighbors, and contribute to planet preservation.

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