Planting seasons come to end

Homewood Cemetery needs plots used for decades by gardeners

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The snap pea tendrils and juicy Cherokee Purple tomatoes, the green shoots of Siberian hardneck garlic and the gently unfurling leaves of a fig tree -- all of these will see their last summer this year at the Homewood Community Garden, which will close at the end of October after nearly 40 years.

Gardeners there, who have been tenants of the Homewood Cemetery since plots opened in 1977, have long known they were planting on borrowed time. But while they understand the cemetery's need for additional space for burials -- as much as 70 percent of the 200-acre cemetery on Forbes Avenue near Braddock Avenue is already in use -- many do regret this good thing coming to an end.

But like all successful gardeners, many plan to keep raising berries and tomatoes and beans, and to enjoy what they can, while they can.

"It's sad, but we're learning how to do it and if we get into another garden, we'll know better how to do it," said Ruth Ann Fagan, 67, of Squirrel Hill, who was working on a recent sunny afternoon in the garden plot she shares with her husband, Bob. "It's just great to see everybody and be out here, working together."

Plots are available at no charge for use of the land, and gardeners pay a minimal fee for using the site's water and for the compost and mulch the garden association has delivered to the site.

After notifying the garden's leaders several years ago that it would have to close in the near future, and leasing it to the garden association on a year-to-year basis, cemetery officials decided in early spring to close the garden after this growing season, said David Michener, president and chief executive officer of Allegheny Cemetery.

Eventually, the garden was going to have to be used for its intended purpose, which is burial of the dead, he said.

"We encouraged them to find another property and that's why we gave them as much notice as possible," Mr. Michener said. "They've always treated the cemetery with a great deal of respect, and I feel the cemetery has done the same for them in allowing them to garden at no charge."

He was not without sympathy for local gardeners who have sunk time, money and passion into plots that many have used and worked to improve for years.

"I do feel bad for them if they live in an apartment and don't have an opportunity to have grass," he said. "Those are the people I would like to see find another garden somewhere."

For now, no definite alternative has emerged, although Pittsburgh officials say they are open to a group of would-be gardeners cobbling together a new community garden from abandoned properties that a neighborhood would like to see reclaimed.

"There are lots of properties that could use assistance from the community and their neighbors and we encourage people to engage where they can, and to encourage partnerships with the city if appropriate," said Chuck O'Neill, the city's operations coordinator for the public works department.

Without a garden plot to work in next year, Mrs. Fagan -- who said she typically raises strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, squash, lettuce, peppers and celery in the cemetery -- said she is considering turning her front yard into a strawberry patch.

Sue Long, 48, a special education teacher from Squirrel Hill, said she knew the garden was going to close eventually, but already? She got there just four years ago, after waiting for several years for a plot to open.

"You build all these beds and bring in a composter and then they tell us we have to move everything and leave," she said, adding that she hoped the garden association would find a new site.

Wendy Stroh, 54, of Regent Square said she hopes so, too, as she surveyed her beds of a half-dozen varieties of garlic and contemplated the heirloom tomatoes she planned to plant.

She has no yard, just a balcony where she might be able to fit a single pot.

"We can't be bitter because we've known we're guests, but where am I going to put them in my apartment?" she said.

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: or 412-263-1719.

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