Fall doesn't mean the end of work for the dozen volunteers at the Urban Edible Teaching Garden.
Master Gardeners Barb Kline and Pat Morgan were already making plans on Saturday to introduce new varieties of vegetables, berry bushes and fruit trees at the plot in Pittsburgh's North Point Breeze neighborhood.
"This is just phase one of the project," Ms. Kline said of the initial growing season. Ms. Kline and Ms. Morgan, the garden managers, provided an afternoon tour of what until last May had been a vacant lot at 400 N. Lexington St. The tract has been divided into dozens of raised beds on which volunteers planted and cared for multiple types of tomatoes, lettuce, beets, cucumbers, peppers, squash, greens and herbs.
"We're doing trials to determine what varieties are good for an urban setting," said Ms. Kline, of Penn Hills.
The teaching garden uses organic farming methods. That means that beetles chomping on the feathery leaves of the asparagus plants have to be picked off one at a time. Companion planting -- planting parsley next to the asparagus -- also is being used to deter insect pests.
The project got under way with a grant from The Sprout Fund. The sponsor is Penn State Extension, which provides agricultural advice and training both to farmers and backyard gardeners. Other financial support for the garden came from the Point Breeze North Community Development Corp., the city Urban Redevelopment Authority, Baker Young Corp. and Allegheny County.
Mac Howison, program officer for The Sprout Fund, said his agency's "seed award" to the garden fit in with its mission to support local food systems and "green" reuse of vacant land. "We are looking to help the Penn State Extension raise awareness of its programs and get the community involved in learning more about urban farming," he said.
That effort appeared to be paying off Saturday during the garden's afternoon open house. Visitors were invited to walk through the plot and taste some of the vegetables grown there.
George Danko, of Regent Square, has cultivated what he described as a narrow alley garden since 1985. As he walked the wood chip-covered paths between the vegetable beds, he made entries on the different varieties of tomatoes growing there in a small green notebook.
"It's amazing how much produce you can grow in a small space," he said. His urban plot produces enough for his family and for donations to food pantries at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church and the Squirrel Hill Food Bank.
Inga Jensen, who lives in Swissvale, came to the open house looking for a fresh start in urban gardening. She had grown her own flowers and vegetables for 20 years in Texas, but she reported losing her green thumb since relocating to southwestern Pennsylvania in 2007.
On Tuesday she will start the Penn State Extension's Master Garden class. "I want to learn how not to kill things," she said. "I can't even grow zinnias now."
Urban gardening has its share of challenges.
Volunteers were not surprised when a hungry groundhog started munching on lettuce plants, but they were caught off guard when deer turned up in a city neighborhood, Ms. Morgan said.
Vegetable cages and wire netting have provided partial protection for vulnerable plants.
Cucumber beetles took out five varieties of that vegetable, but four others -- called Rocky, Adam Gherkin, Little Heat and Poona Kherra -- have thrived.
A spring lettuce called "green deer tongue" proved to be heat-tolerant, and a summer variety called Batavian resisted bitterness that often results from high temperatures, Ms. Morgan, of Braddock, said.
An heirloom tomato called Cosmonaut Volkov, named for a Soviet space hero, provided early bright-red fruit. Martha Washington, a pink hybrid, seemed promising, but it was found wanting in taste when compared with the better known Brandywine variety.
The North Point Breeze garden also offered examples of new ideas in home-agriculture techniques.
In straw-bale gardening, seeds and seedlings are planted in a thin layer of soil atop the bales. Tomatoes, Swiss chard, scallions, lettuce, carrots, oregano, peas and parsley all appeared to be thriving on one raised bed made of eight bales arranged in a square.
Development of the "edible teaching garden" is a multiyear project. Asparagus plants won't be yielding until their third growing season, Ms. Morgan said. After blueberries are planted next year it will take four to five years before they produce fully.
Other things to be planted on the lot include pear and apple trees, grape vines and currant bushes. Grape-sized kiwi berries will be grown on a 6-foot-tall trellis.
The edible teaching garden has been the site of several programs since May.
A final workshop, "Putting the Garden to Bed," is scheduled for Oct. 17. More information on that program and other Penn State Extension offerings is available at 412-473-2540. The website is www.extension.psu.edu/allegheny.
Gardeners with questions also can call the extension service's Gardenline at 412-473-2600 or send queries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Calls and questions are answered weekly October through March.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 724-772-0184. First Published September 29, 2013 4:15 AM