by Courtney Patterson

For years, Master Gardener Susan Marquesen and her Penn State Extension coworkers would look out the windows of their Point Breeze office at a small vacant lot across the street and dream of ways to transform it.

This spring, they finally did.

With support from a Sprout Fund Seed Award, Penn State Extension broke ground on an Edible Teaching Garden on North Lexington Street in May of this year. The Penn State Master Gardeners are developing and maintaining the organic vegetable and fruit garden to demonstrate the best practices in urban gardening to city residents.

Barb Kline and Pat Morgan are the Master Gardeners managing the installation of the garden. Both have extensive gardening experience: Kline co-owned a five-acre farm for ten years, while Morgan has been growing figs, raspberries, and heirloom vegetables in her Braddock backyard for the last five years.

Every Thursday evening, Kline, Morgan and other volunteers meet up to tend the garden: they prune, water and harvest vegetables, monitor blight, and scout for insects. One of the perks of volunteering is taking home the harvest, but on this particular August evening, the tomatoes and cucumbers they harvest are set aside for tastings at the annual Garden in the Parks Field Day at the South and North Park demonstration gardens.

A few Master Gardeners lift the cloth off a cabbage bed to check for insect damage. They water the bed and seed another for onions and leeks. Marquesen motions them over to a table where she has laid out canning jars, a pressure can, gardening primers, and canning tools. She is ready to begin her workshop, “Preserving from the Garden,” part of a free summer and fall workshop series that Penn State Extension hosts in the Garden. The gardeners take their seats on straw bales and stand around as Marquesen demonstrates how to dry, freeze, and can a variety of fruits and vegetables.

The crowd is a mix of amateur and experienced gardeners. Lora Shar, a new Master Gardener, is trying to accumulate advanced training hours as part of a Penn State Extension program that gives home gardeners an opportunity to deepen their horticulture knowledge. Shar said gardening is therapy for her after spending hours working inside an office each day. For Fatima McRae, an employee of Allegheny County, the workshop counts towards the Lifestyle Return Program, an incentive-based wellness program that the County offers. She said she does not have adequate outdoor space for a vegetable garden, but plans to grow an herb garden in her apartment.

A Growing Network of Gardeners

This Point Breeze garden is one of many that have been sprouting up in the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Just around the block is Grow Pittsburgh’s Shiloh Garden, and a few miles further is Garfield Community Farm, which built a new bioshelter with support from the Sprout Fund.

Philip Bauerle, Interim Master Gardener Coordinator, said, “Pittsburgh, especially Lawrenceville and Polish Hill, are experiencing a home gardening renaissance, as the demand for locally grown produce has risen.” Yet food access, he added, is not the only benefit of urban gardening, as neighbors come together to recover vacant land and create a greater sense of community.

That camaraderie is what makes Morgan’s experience of gardening at the Edible Teaching Garden in some ways more rewarding than gardening in her backyard.

“You get to connect with a lot of other gardeners, so you’re constantly learning and getting to know other people’s stories, not to mention sharing the work load.”

Trial and Error: A Garden in Progress

The Edible Teaching Garden is a laboratory even for the gardeners who designed it, providing a space to experiment with different growing methods, plant varieties, and pest control measures. “The garden will continue to evolve as we discover what works and what doesn’t,” Morgan said.

This summer they are doing trials of hybrid and heirloom tomatoes and self-pollinating cucumbers. Volunteers have harvested a couple bushels of tomatoes each week in the late summer; Morgan attributes such high yields to a 60/40 ratio of compost to topsoil.  Amaranyth is now growing along the fence where next year’s blueberry bushes will be planted and buckwheat will be cut down and left to decompose to enrich the soil. The gardeners plan to add more plants and herbs that attract pollinators.

Morgan says that they wanted to model straw bale gardening to show city dwellers that growing fresh vegetables is possible even in a concrete backyard – even in a food desert. The gardeners constructed raised garden beds by stacking straw bales and filling them with layers of phosphorus soil, topped with newspaper, straw, and a compost soil from AgRecycle, a compost supplier in Point Breeze.

Keeping critters away from the vegetables has been one of the biggest challenges. When covering garden beds didn’t stop the groundhogs and rabbits from invading, the group added a chicken wire fence. Morgan is interested in learning more about organic pest control.

By next year, the Master Gardeners plan to install a fence, a bench, and signage to educate people on what they are seeing in the garden.

Visitors are welcome to tour the garden at anytime—but especially on September 28 when Penn State Extension will host an Open House where guests can enjoy tastings of the garden harvest, autumn-inspired refreshments, door prizes, and children’s activities.

Stop by the Urban Edible Garden from 1 to 3pm on Saturday, September 28th at 400 North Lexington Street in Point Breeze.

Your support can help make more stories like the one above a reality. Donate to The Sprout Fund and give a helping hand to the people and projects that are making a difference in your community.