Growing communities through shared gardens

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Sitting in a rocking chair on her wind chime-bedecked porch, Jane Zipf said after everything her street in Millvale has endured, including a fire that destroyed nine homes on Good Friday 2002 and flooding from Hurricane Ivan, watching neighbors gather to swap seeds and harvest vegetables is a nice change.

Mrs. Zipf, 54, has lived on Butler Street since 1978 and said she has seen the Millvale Gardens transform her community by attracting volunteers, improving real estate value and bringing people together. She looks at the orchard from her second-floor window every morning as she sips her coffee, surveying the blackberry bushes and pear trees.

The Millvale Gardens complex is one of about 60 community gardens in Pittsburgh, spaces that aim to replace blight and disinvestment with resilience and pride.

To better support this burgeoning movement, Grow Pittsburgh is establishing a garden resource center in Larimer, where those involved with community gardens or simply working in their back yards can rent tools and acquire seeds for a fee. The center is expected to open in September.

It can cost $6,000 to $20,000 to start a community garden, depending on location, size and access to water, said Marisa Manheim, Grow Pittsburgh director of community projects. Since 2010, Grow Pittsburgh has operated a two-year support program for new gardens, helping them become self-sustainable. The organization has started about 15 gardens in the past five years and contributed to numerous others.

In May, Grow Pittsburgh started one at the Centre Ave. YMCA, administered for and by the nearly 70 residents who live there. The produce, including tomatoes, kale, lettuce and cucumbers, is used in their meals, said Dave Wallace, the facility’s business manager.

Urban farming has a long history in Pittsburgh, from victory gardens in the mid-20th century to those the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy sponsored after the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s, Ms. Manheim said. Since the recession, community gardens have resurfaced, coinciding with a lifestyle shift that increasingly emphasizes sustainability.

These gardens provide a valuable alternative in neighborhoods that lack grocery stores with fresh produce. For many in Millvale, the closest grocery store is a 10-minute drive away.

Holly Giovengo, 21, a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in French and sociology, is spending eight weeks working this summer in the Millvale Garden as a Browne Leadership Fellow, a program operated through Pitt’s School of Social Work.

She and Shannon Achille, another fellow, have organized several volunteer days at the gardens, trellising the blackberry bushes, relocating the strawberry pyramids and planting an assortment of crops in the hoop house. In their personal plot, they have green beans, spaghetti squash, carrots and sweet banana peppers.

Like many community gardens in the area, the Millvale Gardens comprise a mix of about 30 individual plots, which are rented for $25 a season, and communal farm spaces. The gardens were started in 2010 with a grant from Allegheny Grows.

The food grown in the hoop house, purchased last year with a $10,000 Heinz Endowments grant, is donated to the Millvale food pantry at Christ Lutheran Church and the Millvale Community Library Junior Gardeners program.

Originally from Shaler, Ms. Giovengo said that in high school, Millvale students were known as the “bad kids,” but working in the gardens has disproved this stereotype and shown her a different side of the community. Residents frequently drop by with water, scones or extra vegetables, she said.

Linda Lang, 67, Millvale Borough Development Corp. secretary and long-time resident (she lives in the house her grandparents built in 1898), said the Millvale Gardens have helped the community return to its roots: where neighbors know one another and help each other out. The mayor, Vince Cinski, comes by every morning before going to the local coffee shop.

Pulling weeds as she strolled between plots of kohlrabies and chocolate mint, Mrs. Lang reflected on her neighborhood’s development.

At one time, Millvale had three butchers, five bakeries and two produce shops. Then everything disappeared. Now the community is rebuilding itself, evolving into something “really special,” she said.

With its herb spiral, rain barrels and compost heaps, the garden complex has played a critical role in this evolution, the neighborhood growing in sync with the tomatoes ripening on twisted vines.

Stephanie McFeeters:, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @mcfeeters.

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