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Growing Communities through Community Gardening

Jun 01, 2017 02:24PM ● Published by Beth Gavaghan

NHCO Garden volunteer

Gallery: Community Gardening [9 Images] Click any image to expand.

Community gardens offer much more than the opportunity to grow produce. They help build a sense of community, create attractive green space, and provide outlets for service and education.

Madison Nestor has been organizing the Food City Community Garden at Tripoli and Chesnut streets in the North Side neighborhoods of Spring Garden and East Deutschtown for the past two years.

“It’s located in an area of our community that has been changing a lot and continues to change,” Nestor said. “Because of the garden, this area has turned into a town square of sorts. Tending the garden, keeping it looking nice and keeping people engaged has helped. It fuels the initiative to turn the space into a community square.”

The garden began as an educational endeavor of The Children’s Museum and was known as the Food City Fellows. The end goal was to ultimately transfer control of the quarter-acre property to the community, which occurred three years ago, Nestor said.

Because of the museum’s focus on soil remediation, the ground is safe for planting. As a result, Food City does not have many raised beds, which are common in city gardens because of contaminated runoff. The two raised beds it does maintain were installed just this spring with the aid of a grant and were specifically designed to be handicapped accessible. The group also added a new decorative wooden entrance.

“We’re building on what the museum has done with the property,” Nestor said.

Food City’s plots are designed for personal use, with 30 plots of various shapes and sizes renting for $10 a growing season. Like Nestor, most of its gardeners live in the North Side. Because many are renters and tend to be transient, about half return each year. The garden also contains four or five beds that are open to the community to plant and harvest. They are marked with signs reading, “Community bed—pick me.”

“It is a good place for someone who’s new to gardening because they don’t have to buy tools, so the expense is minimal,” Nestor said. She noted that there is a tool shed on the property and the garden receives plenty of donated supplies.

People plant mostly vegetables—tomatoes, peppers, corn, zucchini, beans and herbs. Some perennials from the museum’s tenure also grow in each plot, Nestor added, including various berries.

Interested gardeners can connect with Food City at www.facebook.com/foodcitypgh.

Community service is key to the Rosalinda Sauro Sirianni Garden on Davis Avenue in Bellevue. Owned and operated by North Hills Community Outreach (NHCO), its produce is directed entirely to the organization’s three food pantries: Allison Park, North Boroughs (Bellevue) and Millvale.

“We try to grow vegetables that are in demand by the food pantries,” said Alyssa Crawford, NHCO garden and youth coordinator, adding that spring crops of radishes, beets, lettuce, kale and asparagus give way to summer crops of eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes.

The community garden is almost an acre in size and features a bee house, a high tunnel to extend the cold weather growing season, a 25-tree fruit orchard, a children’s garden and strawberry patch. Eagle Scouts installed compost bins, an information kiosk, a produce washing area and picnic tables.

Founded in 2011, the garden is named for the mother of an NHCO supporter who donated the land. Sauro Sirianni had been an Italian immigrant who lived across the street and had gardened there.

“We have a wonderful base of support—community members who care about the work we do,” said Crawford. Last year, 194 volunteers worked 1,181 hours at the site, harvesting 4,500 pounds of organic produce for 1,400 families. 

Drop-in gardening hours are Monday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Groups of more than five people are asked to contact Crawford to arrange a time and date to volunteer. She noted that the garden has so many volunteers because organizations such as Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, youth groups and corporate teams visit on a one-time basis. 

“We ask that volunteers wear closed-toed shoes and clothes they don’t mind getting dirty,” Crawford said. “We supply the rest—the tools, gloves and instructions.”

Education is a large component of the garden’s mission. Volunteers learn onsite, and in the cooler months Crawford often visits groups to make presentations.

While Crawford is the garden’s only full-time employee, last summer and this summer, NHCO received a grant to employ two high school students part-time as youth leaders, giving them hands-on experience with sustainability, organic food production, leadership and food insecurity issues.

To learn more about the garden, visit www.nhcogardens.squarespace.com.

The Garden of Etna at the corner of Elk Way and Locust Street features a mix of gardening for charity and personal use. Shaler resident Tom Quigley launched the effort to establish the garden as an outreach of Glenshaw Presbyterian Church. The goal was to benefit the Etna food pantry of sister church Calvert Memorial Presbyterian as well as Etna residents.

Support from the community, Etna Borough and a onetime $12,000 grant from the Allegheny County Health Department helped make the garden a reality. It enjoyed its first growing season in 2011.

“Good things always kind of happen at the garden without much prodding,” Quigley said. He mentioned that a South Hills garden center contributed vegetable plants its first growing season, a pavilion was built as an Eagle Scout project in 2014, and last fall a man replaced shingles on the tool shed free of charge. One gardener has also taken it upon himself to water the entire garden every day.  

The community garden contains 17 4 x 10-foot raised beds that residents can reserve free of charge. It also has four 4 x 20-foot raised beds, the produce of which is dedicated to Bread of Life Food Pantry at Calvert Memorial and the food bank at Etna’s All Saints Catholic Church. Last year, about 300 pounds of produce was harvested for the food pantries.

The Garden of Etna also benefits from its association with Shaler Area High School. Students in the gifted program start plants from seed in the school’s greenhouse and transfer them to the food bank plots every spring. The high school provides cold weather plants such as lettuce, peas and broccoli in early April, followed by summer crops like tomatoes, beans and eggplant.

“Sometimes when I’m at the garden, it amazes me,” Quigley said. “It’s a beautiful spot that’s the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people.”

Shaler resident and garden volunteer Sherry Jones helps tend the food bank plots and delivers produce. She noted that University of Pittsburgh students put straw over the gardens at the end of the last growing season.

“I like to garden and love that it provides needy people with the freshest produce,” Jones said.

For more information, visit www.etnalive.org/index.php/gardens/community-garden.

The Pittsburgh area is fortunate to be home to many community gardens, giving residents the opportunity to grow their own crops, connect with neighbors, learn and serve others. For more information on community gardens and how to start one, visit www.growpittsburgh.org.

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