As city trends go, the community vegetable garden is right up there with bicycle infrastructure, loft apartments and small business incubators. But most community gardens don't last.
Covering the city neighborhood beat for eight years, I have visited at least 15 garden sites at which one or two volunteers' enthusiasm was infectious when the earth was first moved. Two or three years later, many of these sites are fields of weeds. The city has put either money or public works services into some of these without ongoing support or accountability that would have made for better investments.
A new program has come down the pike with a $44,000 "Let's Grow" grant to the city, one of four national grants from Cities of Service. The other grantees are Phoenix, Indianapolis and Duluth, Minn. These awards were made late last year, after which the city put out word that money was available and chose applicants for gardens in 10 neighborhoods. Each garden has stewards and volunteers who will be held accountable, based on Cities of Service benchmarks, for two years.
"The goal is to harvest one ton of fresh food for 200 families," 20 families per neighborhood, said Marissa Doyle, a spokesman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
That's admirable, but anyone who gardens just for himself knows that $44,000 for 10 gardens to feed 200 families is spread pretty thin and doesn't leave any incentive money for proper garden management. The neighborhoods named so far are Brighton Heights, Elliott, Hill District, Beltzhoover, Troy Hill, Beechview, Polish Hill and California-Kirkbride. Two selections are to be named by the end of the month.
Will these gardens fare any better than others that have gone to seed after two years?
City public works crews provided the raised beds and labor, the Penn State Extension Service tested the soil and Grow Pittsburgh provided consulting services and will include Edible Gardens on its interactive map of gardens.
Grow Pittsburgh is otherwise not connected to the Edible Gardens project, said Julie Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh. Grow Pittsburgh is the go-to team if you're going to start a gardening program. It raises its own money to partner with 12 garden groups within the city and county.
The fact that the city did not pull that organization in to help lay the foundation for going after the grant in the first place is perplexing.
It's likely some of these gardens will do a face plant after two years and others, with the benefit of plucky stewards who can motivate a few committed volunteers, might actually take off.
Brighton Heights, the neighborhood that led things off with a recent planting, has Adam Hnatkovich, a conservation biologist and plant ecologist, as one of its garden stewards. He and his wife, Jodie Hnatkovich, applied to the city in league with the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation "to pursue it as a larger group," Mr. Hnatkovich said.
"I moved back to Pittsburgh a year and a half ago having been involved in community gardening projects in other places. I was surprised our neighborhood didn't have one. I was interested in growing food for residents who may not have skills or space."
Stewards will track the time volunteers spend every week, and that time will be commensurate with the amount of produce the volunteer gets, Mr. Hnatkovich said. "Every week we will do a group harvest and weigh the produce and distribute proportionally and donate the remainder."
Because of his background, he plans to make the garden a classroom of sorts, teaching techniques such as companion gardening -- i.e., planting squash as a ground cover and corn as a vertical support for vining bean plants.
Chelsea Peluso, the mayor's neighborhood initiatives specialist, said the stewards are expected to hit several marks, including a post-planting evaluation and distribution plan that will be tracked for two years.
Two years is about how long it takes stewards and volunteers who get no additional support to decide that the time and effort of doing all that work to feed families who don't volunteer just isn't worth it.
If the city is really serious about bringing fresh food to people in underserved neighborhoods, it ditches the piecemeal approach, picks just three or four very needy food deserts and builds on a grant by calling in the experts to create a sustaining plan that can turn gardening into neighborhood food and jobs.