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The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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Pitt track and field athlete inducted into Delaware Sports Museum & Hall of Fame
Pitt track and field athlete inducted into Delaware Sports Museum & Hall of Fame
By Grace McNally, Staff Writer • June 13, 2024
Opinion | Long-distance friendships are possible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 6, 2024

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Pitt track and field athlete inducted into Delaware Sports Museum & Hall of Fame
Pitt track and field athlete inducted into Delaware Sports Museum & Hall of Fame
By Grace McNally, Staff Writer • June 13, 2024
Opinion | Long-distance friendships are possible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 6, 2024

Rooted in the community: gardens bring neighborhoods together

Thomas J. Yang
Pittsburgh residents and students are an integral part of maintaining the community gardens. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer)

Whether it’s planted on a worn-down baseball field, hidden in a church’s vacant parking lot or sandwiched between two houses, Pittsburghers have repurposed sections of their neighborhoods into community gardens — green spaces where neighbors can meet, mingle and grow crops together.

Pittsburgh residents of all ages are gardening together — watering plants, pulling out weeds and harvesting fresh vegetables like peppers, squash, leeks and tomatoes. For some, it’s a way to get to know neighbors. For others, it provides access to local sustainable produce.

Plant to Plate: Central Oakland

Nhat Dang plucks a bloom off a thorny rosebush, lifts it to his nose and inhales deeply. Stunningly pink and fragrant, it is just one plant among myriad flowers, fruits and vegetables thriving in a Pitt student-run community garden tucked away in Central Oakland.

Located on Oakland Avenue, the garden was established in 2008 by Plant to Plate, a student organization at Pitt which grows fresh-organic produce to share with fellow students and Oakland residents.

“It’s a nice way to escape the city life,” Dang, a junior pharmacy major and current president of Plant to Plate, said.

Gardening takes place during hour-long work shifts starting Sundays at 5 p.m., with about 20 student club members arriving weekly to bury seeds in dirt, pull weeds, harvest mature crops and engage with the earth.

One of these students is Peter Gibson, a sophomore bioengineering major, who spends an hour each week getting his hands dirty in the garden.

“Pitt is an urban campus, so there’s not a lot of green area,” Gibson said while crouched in a garden bed, yanking out weeds with a rake during a work shift. “So it’s nice to have this place where I can garden a little bit and not feel trapped inside a concrete jungle.”

With crops growing in Plant to Plate’s seven large and 15 smaller garden beds, the student gardeners split up the harvest among themselves after work shifts, but during successful growing seasons Plant to Plate donates excess fruits and veggies to the Pitt Pantry.

In addition to student gardening, Plant to Plate has a compost center for students to dispose of food scraps and additional plant beds which, for $15, are currently rented out by three non-student members of the Central Oakland community.

As winter approaches, work shifts will end and the club will go dormant until the spring, when the growing season begins. But before club members leave for the winter, they will plant bulbs for leeks, green onions and potatoes in preparation for the spring.

Dang said the garden has faced challenges, from poor harvests to vandalism, including a recent incident where the garden’s wooden sign was uprooted from the ground and broken overnight.

“You can’t really stop [vandalism] because [the] garden’s in the center of drunkville, or [Central] O,” Dang said.

Despite the challenges, Dang feels growing crops on a college campus is essential for providing a space for students to get away from the bustle of an urban campus.

“It’s nice to be with nature,” Dang said. “I think a lot of the students and community members who come here feel that way, too.”

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh: North Oakland

While Plant to Plate keeps its doors open to all during work shifts, students who would prefer not to venture far for garden produce can grab their cherry tomatoes and sprigs of mint from a community garden at the Carnegie Library in Central Oakland.

“I’m surprised by how much people harvest,” Rita Botts, a librarian who has overseen the two-bed garden in front of the library for the past three years, said. “As soon as something is ripe, it’s gone.”

The garden, which is funded by a 2013 grant from the Mary Jane Berger Memorial Foundation, is entirely volunteer-run, with five to six volunteer gardeners maintaining everything from leafy greens to garlic to a pot of rosemary tended by a trio of garden gnome statuettes.

Visitors are encouraged to use the library’s vast cookbook collection to get creative with their harvest — according to Botts, a visitor made cheesecake out of a pumpkin grown in the garden one year. But others can’t resist the wait.

“Some people just pluck [produce] right from the garden and eat it immediately, which is fantastic,” Botts said with a laugh, referring to a young boy who just minutes earlier had run up to a garden bed to pop raw kale into his mouth.

More than just providing fresh crops, Botts said the garden, alongside the library’s other resources such as puzzles and hands-on workshops, forges connections between community members.

“People gather here, and it’s a meeting spot,” Botts said. “They’ll start talking to each other, maybe exchange names, get to know one another. So I think it’s something that draws people together.”

The Octopus Garden: Friendship

Wandering in the Friendship neighborhood, you may stumble across a curious street sign — “Caution: Tomatoes.” Follow the arrow on the sign, and you will find the Octopus Garden, a whimsical community garden aptly named for its centerpiece — a giant mosaic octopus sculpture named Octavia.

The garden was established in 2009 by Kristin Hughes, an associate professor at the Carnegie School of Design. After a fire destroyed an apartment complex in her neighborhood, Hughes purchased the plot of land to revitalize the space with a community garden.

“I purchased the property with sort of the goal of starting something very hopeful and peaceful for the neighborhood,” Hughes said.

Families pay $50 per season and currently 24 families share the 18-bed garden — together cultivating flowers, fruits and vegetables including carrots, peaches, pears, cherries and plums. But neighbors weren’t always supportive of the space.

“First two years, I got nasty notes from people in this community [saying] that I was creating an eyesore,” Hughes said. “People would take some of the bricks and smash car windows, and it was really disappointing.”

The garden struggled to resonate with the community. That is, until Pittsburgh-based artists

Lauren Jean McLaughlin and Bob Ziller asked Hughes if she’d like an octopus sculpture for the space.

Originally made for the Three Rivers Arts Festival and then donated to the garden, Octavia soon made her debut in the neighborhood. An eight-tentacled mosaic sculpture made of fragments of yellow tiles, her wide grin and cartoonish features began to peak the interest of passersby.

“The minute the octopus came and sort of sat in the center, it really kind of changed the neighborhood’s perception of the space,” Hughes said. “The garden has a personality. It’s quirky, there’s a lot of humor.”

Since then, additional artwork has brightened the garden. Chalkboard drawings of mermaids, a vibrant orange and indigo lending library and Octavia’s more recent sea creature sidekick made by the same artists — a part-kaleidoscope sculpture known to locals as Doris and said to be a cousin of the Loch Ness Monster — all invite community members to engage with plants, creative processes and one another.

“[The garden] just brings people together in a really natural way,” Hughes said. “People contributing little amounts of money, little amounts of time, planting has made it such a beautiful place to be.”

Courtesy of Prachi Patel

Grow Pittsburgh: Mt. Washington

Tired of shopping at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, Valerie Lowe, a resident of Mount Washington, decided to start a community garden in her neighborhood to grow her own crops.

Five raised garden beds now sit overlooking a swimming pool at the Mount Washington Recreation Center, filled with swiss chard, rainbow chard, collard greens, kale, parsley, radishes, turnips and garlic plants. But establishing a garden proved to be a difficult feat.

“A lot of people agreed and were excited and really showed their enthusiasm,” Lowe said about her efforts to raise awareness about starting a garden in the neighborhood. “[But] then we needed a certain number of people to get started. People to commit. That took many months.”

For additional support, Lowe reached out to Grow Pittsburgh, a local organization promoting gardening and food production. Grow Pittsburgh currently has 21 community garden locations identified in the city on their Grower’s Map and runs a community garden program to support communities interested in starting a garden.

If accepted into the Grow Pittsburgh program, the organization will support a new garden for two years, helping with everything from planting crops and setting up waterlines to building fences and accessing gardening tools. After the two years, gardens can apply for the Community Garden Sustainability Fund to support their site.

“[We’ll] be there for that first line of support for anything they need,” Russ Thorsen, a community garden coordinator who has worked actively with the Mount Washington Community Garden, said.

Lowe partnered with Sarah Marcinko, a fellow Mount Washington resident, to work with Grow Pittsburgh to make the garden a reality. The two attended the organization’s three-class workshop series to learn how to organize and manage a garden.

While finding land and community support were a challenge, Lowe and Marcinko were thrilled to host a build day Sept. 16 at the garden, where Mount Washington community members gathered to plant the very first seedlings. Families pay $35 per year to grow crops, and already the garden has seen success.

“We had our first little harvest last week. I took off some really big leaves off the collards,” Lowe said. “We got a lot of leaves, and actually got to cook them — and they were delicious.”

As for Thorsen, he hopes facilitating community gardens in Pittsburgh can provide access to sustainable, organic produce and bring communities together.

“It provides fresh food for a lot of people,” Thorsen said. “[And] hopefully it brings them together. That’s kind of like the goal we want.”