Community gardens allowing many to share in work, harvest


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Bunches of red tomatoes are among the vegetables and fruits ripening at community gardens throughout Allegheny County. Most have varieties of corn growing right on schedule: Stalks are as "high as an elephant's eye" in August.

From anise to apples, zucchini to zinnias, community gardeners are planting and enjoying the usual bounty of summer -- lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, onions. Then there are some with a more exotic flavor and bent: Mexican tomatillos -- small fruit with papery husks -- and ground cherries -- fruit that is both sweet and tart and gets its name because it falls from the vine before ripening.

At some of the gardens, gardeners are experimenting with planting luffa -- gourds that are planted on fences (luffa seeds are used in loofah sponges) -- and sugar cane, peanuts and other crops that generally aren't seen in Western Pennsylvania.

The gardens are lovely to look at, too, with purple eggplants and rainbow chard providing color as well as nutrition. Zinnias and other flowers are often mixed in for their visual appeal and to attract butterflies and other pollinators good for the environment. Marigolds are sometimes planted near tomatoes because the flowers repel insects.

Community gardens appear to be everywhere this summer and, although no official group tracks their numbers and locations, it's a safe bet to say they are "growing" in popularity.

In response, the nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh has partnered with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to help start such community gardens. Now in its fourth year, Grow Pittsburgh operates and supervises seven gardens in the city with support by the Colcom Foundation, H.J. Heinz Company Foundation and PNC Foundation. The gardens are in Lawrenceville, Uptown, Brighton Heights, South Side, Homewood-Brushton, Upper Lawrenceville and Central Northside.

The organization then added the Allegheny Grows program with funding from the Allegheny County Office of Economic Development to oversee nine gardens in suburban areas: Millvale, McKees Rocks, Penn Hills, Bellevue, Wilkinsburg, Clairton, Natrona, Homestead and Coraopolis.

For two years, Grow Pittsburgh and Allegheny Grows have provided start-up materials and hands-on technical and educational support. The deadline for applying for help for next year's gardens is Sept. 6. Note that a community garden must have a partnering nonprofit and land owned by a nonprofit, municipality or public entity. The site also must test safe from toxins.

The two groups also help with those back-breaking tasks associated with tilling Mother Earth: pulling weeds, building raised beds, adding organic fertilizer and mulch to poor soil, and digging posts to install fences to keep out hungry deer, groundhogs and rabbits.

For routine maintenance, volunteers are organized to weed, water, mulch and harvest the produce. None of the community gardens uses herbicides or pesticides.

All of the gardens donate fresh produce to neighborhood food pantries and/or the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, and volunteers get to keep some.

Nothing is wasted.

"The mission is to get food to those who need it," said Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh. "We would like any community garden in the county to be considered part of our network," she said. "We are here as a resource."

Penn Hills garden

Richard Stevens, an engineer, grows vegetables, grain and sorghum on the 5 acres that surround his Penn Hills home. Still, he also is active at the Penn Hills Community Garden.

"I come here because it makes gardening a team sport," Mr. Stevens said.

The big, bountiful community garden entices visitors -- who are always welcome -- with sights and smells of things growing.

What are those tall plants with an abundance of tiny purple flowers? That's oregano, Mr. Stevens said, adding that it smells as good as it looks, growing in the circular herb section at the front of the garden.

"Everyone should plant oregano," Mr. Stevens said. "The animals won't eat it and it chokes out weeds."

In the herb garden is a chair he made from the trunk and roots of a large tree that fell in his backyard.

The community garden, located on a former ball field on Jefferson Road, is owned by the municipality. Three years ago, the Penn Hills Community Development Corp. turned it into a starter garden with 16 "beds" or plots. Now it has 106 individual beds -- each 4 feet by 12 feet -- with "a couple hundred" people involved in the planting, weeding, watering and harvesting, said garden manager Shawn O'Mahony. Participants pay $25 per plot per season, and the garden has a waiting list.

This is the third growing season for the Penn Hills garden.

"We were looking for a community project that would not cost much money," Ed Zullo, past president of the development group, said. "In the 1930s and 1940s, there were victory gardens," he noted, "so there have been community gardens through history."

Mr. O'Mahony said he got involved because he was looking for a place to be active in the community.

"I wasn't expecting all this -- so many wonderful people coming together ... getting to know the neighbors again."

Mr. O'Mahony points out his luffa gourds. Laura Pushcar shows off her Dragon Egg cucumbers, which are cukes shaped like the name suggests. Keith McWilliams has planted purple sweet potatoes from Okinawa and peanuts.

Is the growing season long enough here to harvest peanuts, which generally are grown in warmer climates?

Mr. McWilliams said he is in the "we'll see" phase and he hopes to harvest his peanuts in late September.

Running water has been installed, but gardeners also use rainwater collected from the roof of a shed they built.

There are giant piles of mulch and compost donated by Penn Hills and mushroom manure donated by Penn Hills Lawn & Garden Center.

The garden has some unique touches, including a "garden mascot," a member's bichon frise who often greets visitors. And, amid the fast-growing corn are plastic statues of children -- a nod to the campy 1984 film "Children of the Corn." Tomatoes climb a "spider web" that Mr. Stevens constructed from glow-in-the-dark rope.

Two tents, picnic tables and a hodgepodge of chairs have been donated and provide shade and resting places for gardeners. Parties, picnics and bonfires have been held at the garden; a "star gazing party" is scheduled in the fall.

First-year gardener Rhonda Rector Rankin serves some of the veggies she grows at her Penn Hills cafe, Creamy Creations and More.

"I got a late start and before my lettuce came in, [other gardeners] donated lettuce to me," Ms. Rankin said.

Donated day lilies and other flowers add color and attract pollinators. This year, gardener Tim Kudrav added a hive with 30,000 honey bees. He installed it a short distance from the garden beds in undergrowth and noted that the bees are non-aggressive and good for the environment.

In the first growing season, Penn Hills gardeners donated 315 pounds of vegetables; last year, the bounty was 750 pounds.

This year, gardeners planted a 100- by 20-foot plot called The Donation Garden and that harvest will go to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and a local senior center.

The garden is included on the Sept. 14 Penn Hills House and Garden tour. Admission is $10 in advance or $15 the day of the self-guided tour. Tickets are available at the Penn Hills Garden Club on Jefferson Road, by sending an email to phcdhousetour@gmail.com or by calling 412-275-0014.

Bellevue garden

More than 3,000 pounds of vegetables, fruit and herbs were grown last year at the Rosalinda Sauro Sirianni Memorial Garden in Bellevue. All went to the 1,450 families who use two food pantries operated by North Hills Community Outreach, which owns and operates the garden.

The land at 119 Davis Ave. was donated by Teresa I. Amelio, 75, who grew up across the street.

"My family ate vegetables grown on this land," Mrs. Amelio recalled. "Sometimes dinner was just an ear of corn for each family member."

Mrs. Amelio donated the land with the proviso that the garden be named after her mother, that food be donated to those in need and that the garden be organic.

She said she is thrilled with the first three growing seasons and is especially happy to see hundreds of people volunteering.

Here, as in all the community plots, garden pests are dispatched in a safe manner.

"We do have bugs, we just deal with them differently than those who use pesticides," said Rosie Wise, this garden's coordinator. Community gardeners use non-toxic oil sprays as well as old-fashioned methods, which include removing by hand the insects, their larvae and their eggs.

A grant from The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, an international organization, enabled gardeners to plant 23 fruit trees last year, adding peaches, apples, cherries and plums to the harvest. The foundation, with a chapter in Pittsburgh, is a nonprofit dedicated to planting fruit trees. It aims for 18 billion of them to be planted across the world -- that's three for every person.

Because a greenhouse, which resembles a plastic tunnel, was built on the site with $3,400 grant from Grow Pittsburgh, produce is grown here all year round.

Gardening hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through September. Groups that want to volunteer should preregister by contacting Ms. Wise at rmwise@nhco.org or 412-307-0069.

Homestead garden

Ellie Valentine and Sharon Ford had been dreaming about starting a community garden in their town for a half-dozen years. It finally came together in 2012 when Homestead Mayor Betty Esper and some residents had a town hall meeting to discuss concerns about local crime and other problems.

One of the positives to come out of that meeting, Ms. Ford said, was the Amity Harvest Community Garden, planted in the shadow of what used to be the sprawling Homestead Works steel mill. The garden is small, as is the municipality (population: 3,170), but it is well-maintained and produces more than 20 pounds of produce per week for Rainbow Kitchen Community Services.

The more than 40 volunteers also get some of the vegetables, herbs and flowers.

At a recent work session, the volunteers included six Steel Valley High School students, who were watering plants with water collected from rain barrels.

"I think the kids are enjoying the fruits of their labor," said Chuck Taylor, director of YoungLife Steel Valley, an outreach ministry for middle and high school students. He said 20 students from the group volunteer and did initial work involved in moving and stacking red bricks to build raised beds.

"It's been fun," said Peter Glover, a junior and YoungLife member. "I enjoy giving back."

Amina Wilson, a senior, said the garden "is beautiful, much better than I expected. I needed volunteer hours to graduate, but the garden has turned into more than that for me."

A neighbor planted flowers and herbs at the garden, said Ms. Valentine, who brought her young daughter to help with the weeding.

"Children are getting to try food that they've never had before," she said.

Rainbow Kitchen feeds more than 500 households each month, said Donna Little, its executive director.

"I am really happy that the community garden came to fruition ... fresh vegetables are a welcome addition ... and this is a chance for people to see where their food comes from," she said.

The Amity garden is also used for community yoga practice, garden story hours and family game nights. Future plans include more collaboration with local schools, churches and senior living facilities.

Coraopolis garden

Though the harvesting season is far from over, first-year yields at the Coraopolis Community Garden already include more than 151 pounds of tomatoes and 119 pound of squash, including the notoriously prolific zucchini. The harvest also has included 26 pounds of eggplant, 10 pounds of jalapeno peppers, 16 1/2 pounds of basil and 7 pounds of parsley.

All of this and more have sprung from a former weed-infested lot on Broadway Street. Early work sessions filled three trucks with vines and weeds that were removed from the plot.

The garden grows thanks to some 20 volunteers, including Heather Henry and her husband, Mike, who posts pictures of the progress on the garden's Facebook page.

Volunteer gardeners eat some of the produce, but most is donated to the nearby Coraopolis Cooperative Food Pantry.

The garden was started by the Coraopolis Community Development Foundation, a nonprofit created by the Charis247 Community Church in Coraopolis.

Volunteer gardeners include food pantry recipients, students and faculty from the Cornell School District, and staff and students from Robert Morris University.

Volunteers built a pergola, and when beans and other crops are coaxed into climbing the lattice work, they will provide shade for gardening breaks and social events.

Because this is a first-year garden, Rayden Sorock of Allegheny Grows is at the garden every week, and everyone is learning from experience.

After the gardeners got an early start on planting on May 4, the plants had to be covered because the weather turned cold, said volunteer Randon Willard, a counselor at Robert Morris. Most of the early plantings survived, he said.

For details and gardening tips: www.growpittsburgh.org or 412-362-4769. For more on The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation: www.ftpf.org or 831-621-8096.

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Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0087.


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