20-year-old community garden revitalized in Brighton Heights

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Riverview Community Garden in Brighton Heights has come a long way in the past year.

"It was so overgrown," said Bob Fockler, 61, a resident of Riverview Manor, a senior high-rise next to the garden on Pittsburgh's North Side. "When I looked out the window at the garden, all I could see was Rev. [Donald] Dutton's hat bobbing up and down in the weeds."

Today, the 20-year-old garden is a well-tended maze of growing boxes and weed-free plots brimming with a bounty of organically grown fruits and vegetables. In addition, it holds the smiling faces of the volunteers who helped to revitalize the garden.

Rev. Dutton, 78, lives near Riverview Manor and has been farming the land behind it ever since the garden was created by the building's management, National Church Residences, about 20 years ago.

"This used to be a softball field," recalled Rev. Dutton, noting that the building was erected around 1983.

"The [Riverview Manor] managers were members of my congregation [at Providence Presbyterian Church], and they allowed me to have a plot here."

For many years, the garden was a hub of activity, he recalled.

"But then people drifted away from it, and in the last few years, there were only two of us -- and the wild animals -- left."

Along with building manager Dave Carlton, Rev. Dutton and Mr. Fockler decided to bring the garden back to life by sending an application to Grow Pittsburgh, hoping to become part of its City Growers program.

That program was formed through a partnership of Grow Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and funded by grants from the Colcom Foundation, H.J. Heinz Co. Foundation and PNC Foundation.

Now in its third season, City Growers helps communities start and maintain organic gardens in their neighborhoods.

According to community garden assistant Rayden Sorock, 26, of Lawrenceville, the Riverview garden presented a unique challenge to Grow Pittsburgh planners.

"There were limited mobility and accessibility issues with this garden," he said. "And it also has a long history, so we figured it was time to hit the restart button."

To be eligible for help from Grow Pittsburgh, garden groups must have a partnering nonprofit and a suitable site on public or nonprofit-owned land in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Sorock said the goal of every garden is self-sufficiency by the end of its second growing season.

After a year of hard labor and loving care, the garden celebrated its grand opening last month.

Residents, neighbors and local gardeners were welcome to come see the transformation.

Paths of compacted stone that are accessible to those with disabilities and above-ground planting boxes made of cedar and locust wood have helped those residents who are interested in gardening do so comfortably.

Fencing keeps out wild animals.

Produce is used by the individual gardeners, and excess is donated to those in need at Riverview Manor and other local food pantries.

"We provide four main areas of support to each garden we work with," Mr. Sorock said.

"We supply them with materials, such as tools, a shed and seeds; we educate them on how to garden; we provide mechanical support, such as managing the soil pH and the weeds; and we give them organizational support."

"Folks here are excited about the garden," said Riverview Manor resident Skip Gapinski, 69, noting that National Church contributes water for the garden.

"They ran in more water lines, and they pay for the water."

Riverview Manor resident Sandy Flook, 66, had never gardened before, but checking on her growing veggies has become her greatest passion.

"I'm amazed that I grew something," Ms. Flook said.

She takes pictures of her vegetables as if they were her children.

"It's a very enriching experience, and I've learned so much this year. But next year, it will be bigger and better," she said.

"Thanks to Grow Pittsburgh, the garden is set up so you don't have to do a lot of bending, which really helps me because I have rheumatoid arthritis."

Virginia Towers, 72, who had broken her hip, said she likes the convenience of the raised beds.

"This is perfect for me," she said. "I'm simply amazed at what Grow Pittsburgh has done.

I couldn't even get my head around it until I saw it for myself."

About 10 percent of the 99 residents who live in the high-rise tend to the garden, but everyone can get involved in a small way by donating their coffee grounds and eggshells for compost.

"We pass around empty coffee containers to everyone in the building," Mr. Fockler said. He said the garden consists of eight above-ground and 22 in-ground plots, covering an area approximately 75 by 100 feet.

"People are really enjoying the garden," he said.

He invites anyone who has an interest in volunteering or starting a plot to stop by the garden at 1500 Letort St.

"The folks from Grow Pittsburgh have so much enthusiasm, and it was catching," Mr. Fockler said.

"We had a great first year, and we're already planning next year, because this has the potential to be a great thing for the community."

For more information about Grow Pittsburgh: growpittsburgh.org.

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Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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