Claire Baker: From flying high to smelling the roses

188

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Philadelphia Flower Show is the nation’s largest indoor flower show, blooming every March at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

We all love a good queen and this year’s theme explores Britain’s heritage and culture, from royal events to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, from London’s foggy climate to sunny cottage gardens, and from Sgt. Pepper’s band to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel. Visitors will stroll past rolling British hillsides, a manicured cricket club and a floral presentation of the Crown Jewels (insert Prince Harry joke here). For you Gayby boomers, there’s a PHS Kids Zone, and for the first time in its 184-year history, organizers will add an extra day to the show’s run. Also new, the public can purchase Pre-Show Sneak Peek ticket packages, an exciting way to get behind-the-scenes access during the construction of the exhibits. And for you royal watchers, the new Make & Take workshops will offer opportunities for visitors to design, craft and take home their own fashionable fascinators — stylish hats popularized at royal weddings. This week we spoke to Claire Baker, director of gardening programs at PHS. Some of you may remember her as the former executive director at the William Way Community Center.

PGN: You’re from Oklahoma. Is it mandatory to be a Sooner? CB: [Laughs.] No, I am from there but Sooner implies you went to the University of Oklahoma and I didn’t; I attended Oklahoma State and they are the Cowboys (and Cowgirls for women’s teams). It matters because there’s a big rivalry between the two. It is mandatory that I pretend to pay attention to LSU sports though I haven’t, as my family will attest.

PGN: So tell me about growing up. CB: Mom was a homemaker, dad was a petroleum engineer and I have two older brothers, Glen and Dan. We lived outside of a little town called Guthrie, which I think is the most interesting town in Oklahoma. It was the territorial capital before Oklahoma was a state. Oklahoma had land runs where people would go out and stake a claim on a piece of property and then register it in Guthrie. In the 1970s, the city leaders decided to capitalize on its history and they restored a number of original buildings and re-fronted the rest to look period, put in brick sidewalks and really made the place look cool. Of course when I was there, it was a little lame because to me it was just a little town in Oklahoma, one of those places you’re happy to leave if you’ve got ideas of going off and making your mark in the world. But I always recommend it to anyone visiting the state. PGN: Are you close to the bros? CB: Yes, they’re not too terribly much older than me, so we’re all pretty close. We all went to the same college and were there at the same time so we’d do lots of stuff together — skiing, holidays, etc. My parents died when we were fairly young; my mom passed away when I was 24 and my dad died when I was in my early 30s, so having brothers gives me context, people who knew me when. They’re both great and I appreciate the gift they are to me.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? CB: We lived in the country and there weren’t a lot of girls around. I was a tomboy wannabe but I got bored and discovered Eskimo pies and was chubby for a lot of those years. I mostly tagged along with my brothers until high school, when I started getting into student government. I was student-council president and I was in band for a number of years.

PGN: What did you play? CB: Glockenspiel, which migrated into marching bells and orchestra bells and xylophone and marimba — any kind of percussive keyboard instrument. We all had orthodontia issues so my dad wouldn’t let us play any horns.

PGN: What was a funny flying moment? CB: When I was 5 or 6 we’d all go out with my dad and jam into this little plane. When you’re in a power plane, before you take off you have to open the window and shout “clear!” — with an Oklahoma accent that sounds like “Claire!” So, thinking my dad was yelling at me, I’d burst into tears. We also went to glider camp. Gliders are purely recreational so it’s totally about the journey and not the destination. I learned I really preferred them, so by age 14 I was soloing glider planes.

PGN: Any hobbies now? CB: Well, I’m a mom now, so a lot of what I do are things my kids like to do. Outside of family and PHS gardening, I do a lot of stuff around food and Celiac disease. I was diagnosed with it a few years ago and so I have a website (www.clairebakerok.com) and a blog providing education and support and gluten-free dining recommendations. I also have a meet-up group, teach a couple of classes and have written a gluten-free e-cookbook. We like to ski too, but only get to do it about once a year.

PGN: What was your fist recollection of being gay? CB: Oh man, her name was Kelly. She was my first crush in second grade. I just thought that that was what best friends felt like. I had a relationship from my high- school senior year into college and still didn’t get it. [Laughs.] It’s a little strange to be in a relationship with a woman and not realize that you were a lesbian but I managed it! It was Oklahoma and it was the ’80s so it went over my own head. It wasn’t until my senior year when I fell in love with another woman that I finally realized there was a pattern. It was the first time that I acknowledged that my “crushes” were romantic in nature. It was April 5, as I was leaving for grad school, that the light finally went “ka-ching! Hello!” I hadn’t said anything to the people who knew me at OSU, but I made the decision that when I arrived at grad school at Colorado State, I would do it as an open lesbian. When I left, I was happy to see Oklahoma in the rearview mirror and had no intention of returning. I was going to grad school for industrial organizational psychology and I came out to my boss and her boss and they were fine. I was an assistant hall director and I came out to my staff and they were fine — of course I was the boss so what were they going to do? — and I met someone, and like young lesbians do, we got the U-Haul and moved in together. We got a little bit of harassment for that, which was scary because I’d never faced it before — drunk college boys yelling inappropriate stuff at us — but since I was in a position of power, I could pick up the phone and tell campus police and they’d immediately take care of it. That was kind of cool. Not that I got shouted at, but that I could do something about it! PGN: How did you and your partner meet? CB: I moved to Delaware with someone I was dating who came here to attend the University of Delaware. Two weeks after I got here, my mom died. She was only 53 and it was totally unexpected. I was far from home and everybody I knew and I decided I needed to build some community pretty quickly. We’d both been in the Denver Women’s Chorus and so I joined the Anna Crusis Choir. Jennifer was a singer in the choir. She was with someone, as was I, but we liked hanging out together. I liked the fact that she was really out; she had short dykey hair and dyke buttons on her backpack. I wasn’t used to anyone being that much out and proud and I found it quite attractive, like, “Wow, she’s really cool!” Time passed and we broke up with our respective partners and ,in 1991, we started dating each other and ,in 1994, we had a commitment ceremony. Coming from a small town, I’d always thought that having kids was a door that was closed, but then a lot of our friends were starting families and we realized that it was something we wanted to pursue as well. And now we have two lovely boys. Jenn carried them and we used the same anonymous donor so they are 100-percent sibs.

PGN: A fun fact about each of them? CB: Corley’s really into magic. He’s made close to 100 magic videos and he’s had about 50,000 views on his YouTube channel. I don’t have anywhere near that number on my YouTube channel! Scott is into acrobatics. He used to stand around trying to balance on my yoga ball, so we enrolled him in the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts and now he’s learning trapeze and all sorts of things.

PGN: A couple of showmen! So speaking of shows, let’s get to PHS and the Flower Show. What are your responsibilities with PHS? CB: I’m the director for gardening programs, and for the last seven years, I’ve worked with the City Harvest team. With CH, we work with inmates in the prison system to grow seedlings that get distributed to our network of community gardens, and they in turn grow produce that’s donated to local food cupboards. It provides fresh produce for more than 1,000 families each week. We also do nutrition education and we provide resources and technical assistance to urban farmers and entrepreneurial growers, and have expanded the prison program from just growing seedlings to a full job-training program called Roots to Reentry. Those inmates who qualify get some intensive landscape-management training and, since PHS works with a lot of landscape contractors, we’re able to help place a lot of our graduates.

PGN: I was reading that the community gardens in Philadelphia produce an enormous amount of food. CB: Yes, there are more than 270 community gardens in Philadelphia that grow more than 2-million pounds of food at a value of about $5 million. Through City Harvest, we work with hundreds of growers at more than 100 community gardens and urban farms, who donate produce or sell it in their neighborhoods where it’s hard to get local, organic vegetables and fruit. Since the start of City Harvest, more than 213,000 pounds of produce have been provided to families who otherwise may not have had access to it.

PGN: I bet a lot of people don’t realize that PHS does so much more than the Flower Show. CB: True. With City Harvest and our Garden Tenders education program, we work to create community gardens. We plant trees with partners in the city and the region, work on neighborhood parks and transform civic spaces like Logan Square. We also reclaim vacant land. Research shows that reclaimed vacant land leads to reductions in violent crime.

PGN: Yeah, we have a vacant lot next to my house that we fixed up and it has made a huge difference. CB: I bet. We do a lot of work with young people as well. Gardens are a great outdoor classroom for hands-on learning. For instance, the Community Farm and Food Resource Center at Bartram’s Garden is a unique partnership between PHS, Bartram’s Garden, the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center and the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department. The Urban Nutritional Initiative model works with youth and engages with the local community, distributing resources, partnering with schools and educating. In Philadelphia, the Greenworks 2015 goal is to bring local food within 10 minutes of 75 percent of residents. The plan at Bartram’s Garden called for development of a greenhouse, hardening-off area, storage sheds, a vegetable crop field, an orchard, a community garden and perennial fruit beds. We transformed a 3.5-acre site in less than a year and our effort employed 21 high-school interns, produced over 7,000 pounds of food, engaged 25 families in the community garden, grew and distributed 40,000 transplants in and around Philadelphia, planted 110 fruit trees and hosted over 1,000 volunteers.

PGN: Wow! And what can we expect to see at the Flower Show this year? CB: Well, this year’s theme is “Brilliant!” and it celebrates all things British. There are going to be a variety of new culinary experiences, including appearances by Food Network host Sandra Lee and “Real Housewives of New York” star Ramona Singer, all sorts of guest-chef demonstrations and even a British tavern on the show floor. The Garden to Table Studio is cool, they’ll have cooking demonstrations there three times a day with a number of renowned chefs, including our own Daniel Stern and “Iron Chef America” competitor Edward Lee. Once again they’ll be having a special LGBT party on March 3, 4-6 p.m. — special cocktails with celebrity guest bartenders, hors d’oeuvres and fun.

PGN: What was your favorite Flower Show exhibit last year? CB: My job is to work with the PHS exhibit, and last year we had a great space with a beautiful perennial garden with ornamentals and edibles and, of course, the lettuce wall that everyone was talking about. One of the funniest things I saw was a woman sitting on the little brick wall surrounding the garden. Suddenly she reached over and snapped off a chunk of broccoli and ate it! I was afraid we wouldn’t have anything left by the end of the week.

PGN: OK, a few random questions. An item of yours that you should probably throw away? CB: I loved “Xena: Warrior Princess,” and I have an old Xena T-shirt that’s in tatters that I still wear to bed. And I haven’t had a VCR in years, but I have six seasons of “Xena” on VHS. PGN: Favorite family picture? CB: My former boss got us great tickets to the Phillies game when the kids were young. We were in right field and, to keep them excited about the game, every time a lefty came up to bat, I’d tell them, “Get ready! Get ready! The ball’s going to come to us!” And of course it never did … until the last inning, when Ryan Howard stepped up to the plate and smashed the ball right at us. I played some softball but I didn’t have a glove and didn’t want to break a finger so I let it go past. What I didn’t know was that it hit Jenn in the leg and rolled into our stuff. I saw it and handed it to Corley, who stood with the ball in the air. They got a great picture of it. They took the ball back, had it signed and mailed it back to us. The good part was it was a great moment and Jenn’s leg was OK. The bad part is that every game after that, he thought we were supposed to catch a Ryan Howard homer.

PGN: Vegetarian or carnivore? CB: I’ve been a vegetarian for about 17 years. And my palate has really expanded now that I’ve been here. I never really ate beets before and now I love them, even beet greens, which I never would have considered. Dandelion leaves, pickled okra — there’s a whole spectrum of vegetables to explore. You can learn about them at the Flower Show!

“Brilliant!” will run March 2-10 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. For more information, visit www.theflowershow.com.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portrait,” write to [email protected].