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Community Gardens Yield More than Just Veggies

Feb 26, 2016 05:40PM ● Published by Jill Cueni Cohen

There’s more to gardening than just growing food, according to Julie Butcher Pezzino, 34, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh. “As an urban agriculture nonprofit organization, we’re all about teaching people how to grow food and promoting the benefits of gardening across the Pittsburgh region,” she explained, adding that there is a gardening program or opportunity for all ages. “At face value, our work is all about growing food, but it’s really about connecting people with their communities, and food is a great way to do that. It’s a universal joy.”

Community gardening sets the stage for unlikely groups of people to come together by offering a variety of events, classes and workshops geared towards all ages—from very young children to senior citizens. With production sites at Braddock Farms, Shiloh Farm and the greenhouse at the Frick Art & Historical Center, the 11-year-old organization also offers workforce development opportunities that provide more than just lessons in how to grow vegetables.

“We host an urban farmer-in-training, which is a teen program, and an urban farm apprenticeship program for adults,” Pezzino said, noting that such programs offer opportunities for teens and adults to become interested in food and agricultural careers as well as to help them learn about growing food.

Membership in Grow Pittsburgh, which starts at $25, offers novice gardeners free monthly workshops, a newsletter, discounts on events and a $10 discount off of the $30 Garden Resource Center membership, which provides access to gardening supplies, tools and an extensive resource library. The group has approximately 300 members, and its City Growers program has initiated more than 20 community gardens since 2010. In 2014 alone, Grow Pittsburgh’s production sites donated more than 1,000 pounds of fresh produce to families in need. Other events, such as Phipps Conservatory’s May Market, help get people started on their own home gardens.

One of the organization’s most successful garden projects is located in the North Hills—the Rosalinda Sauro Sirianni Memorial Garden in Bellevue. With land donated in 2011 by Teresa Amelio, 77, of McCandless, the community garden was created in partnership with North Hills Community Outreach and helps to bring fresh, organic produce to more than 1,400 families each year.

According to Alyssa Crawford, Garden and Youth Coordinator for NHCO’s North Boroughs office, volunteers harvested more than 4,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables from the community garden last year. “A lot of food pantries don’t have fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said, adding that shelf-stable items are typically not as healthy. “We provide fresh-as-possible, organic produce grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. We harvest in the morning and people get it that same afternoon.”

According to Pezzino, donated land like this, which has never been built on, is a rare find. “It’s wonderful for growing food,” she explained, adding that some vacant lots are not the best sites for gardens. “There’s often rubble from prior buildings, which results in poor quality soil, and lead contamination presents a real issue.” Grow Pittsburgh tests all of the soil in their gardens for lead and can also help people test for lead contamination in their own gardens.

Ensuring long-term sustainability of each garden is challenging when volunteers frequently come and go.  “We have to develop strong teams within the community to make a garden last,” said Pezzino, noting that the group does not work on privately owned land, and long-term land leases for food growing projects are sorely needed. “Because of our funding, the land has to be publicly owned or connected to a nonprofit organization. If you have land you want to donate, you must connect it with a local group that would want a garden.”

“It’s amazing to know that this land will always be a garden with my family’s name on it,” said Amelio, noting that the Bellevue land has been in her family since the 1930s. “Seeing so much food come out of that garden and go to those in need has been a blessing.”

“Most people want to give back to their community and many enjoy gardening, but they may have had issues in their own yards because of pests, deer and groundhogs,” Crawford noted, adding that the Rosalinda Sauro Sirianni garden provides fences, supplies and expertise to help people learn. “We host a lot of student groups, and I like to give tours and talk about sustainable agriculture practices and food insecurity so kids can learn about those issues and do volunteer work. I keep it engaging by stimulating all the senses; letting them sample the vegetables, smell the herbs, touch different plants, and listen to birds sing.”

Grow Pittsburgh also has a school program that focuses on teaching kids what to do with the fresh food they source in the garden through cooking programs.   

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