By Rebecca Lessner
Last spring Manchester Elementary School on the North Side started a vegetable garden with Green Up Pittsburgh, and soon the entire neighborhood was stepping in, growing it into something much more than tomato and pepper plants.
With the help of Pittsburgh’s Green Team and Chelsea Peluso, the project quickly grew to include the school’s 270 children and surrounding neighbors who turned it into a resource about food and education for the entire community.
“I thought it would be a good learning opportunity so that they could see where the food comes from, and for the parents who are coming from low income houses to show them another way to be self-sufficient,” stated Lisa Freeman, Manchester Elementary PTO president and the creative mind behind the gardens development.
It has become so successful, that when the city received a $100,000 grant to expand urban gardens to as many as a dozen neighborhoods this year, it had to look no further than Manchester to find a model for success.
“When that garden started growing it just grew up out of nowhere, it was so lush,” stated Freeman.
Last October Pittsburgh received a grant from Cities of Service during a competitive application process. The $100,000 grant will be split between two of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s Green Up Pittsburgh projects. “Cool Roofs” is a project that could cut energy costs on city-owned buildings; while “Edible Gardens” is focused on providing fresh vegetables and fruit to “food deserts”.
Green Up Pittsburgh is a project started in 2007 by Mayor Ravenstahl to clean up over 100 vacant city lots in order to establish community pride and to grow environmental values, stated Rebecca Delphia, the Mayor’s Chief Service Officer. The city is putting $44,000 of the grant towards the Edible Gardens project. Once 10-15 vacant lots are chosen throughout city neighborhoods, volunteers will plant fruit or vegetable gardens. These lots are chosen out of “food deserts,” low-income areas throughout Pittsburgh where access to fresh foods is problematic.
“Right now we have nine (gardens) that we have definitely picked out, we have some on the North Side, some in the east, some in the west, literally every four regions of the city of Pittsburgh are covered,” stated Peluso, Edible Gardens Coordinator and Point Park Graduate.
At Manchester, the garden originally took three years to get the process of planting underway, but soon after some determination Freeman and Peluso were working together to get the project rooted. The neighborhood, Pittsburgh Green team, and Mayor Ravenstahl showed up on May 16th to help the children plant.
“When we all came out, there were kids on walkers and in wheelchairs and they were able to participate,” stated Freeman. “It was the most heart-warming thing, I thought ‘Wow’, even the kids who were not able to get up and run around or roll in the dirt like the others were still able to participate.”
From there, the neighbors of the school dug into the work after the children had graduated in June. The harvest included tomatoes, lettuce, watermelons and pumpkins.
“That garden was just a wonderful anchor for this side of Manchester to come and talk and learn and start talking in a non-threatening way around dirt, started to get to know each other as neighbors,” stated Freeman, continuing to say that the garden helped lead to community development that year.
“We think it’s important because we want to continue to provide opportunities for folks to invest in green, to have opportunities to transform our image, and I think that the Edible Gardens program is an example of that. It allows to continue image transformation, if you will, as a green city,” said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
The process for planting will begin with the city’s Green Team. Eight to ten green team members will prepare the garden lots first by leveling ground, filling the land and putting the beds down. Next the volunteers will arrive to plant vegetables or fruit into the earth.
“What people suggested that they would like to grow we will accommodate,” states Peluso. “It’s dependent upon the soil testing results. If the land is supportive of it then we will plant it. We are offering kale, green, strawberries, lettuce, corn and green beans.”
Manchester Elementary is excited to test out “new and exotic plants” this upcoming year, continuing the learning aspect of the garden while also having the students reap the fruits of their labor.
Last year, Freeman was discouraged to find that the garden had been harvested by the neighborhood before the kids could enjoy it that fall semester upon their return to the school. This season she is combatting the timing by picking out “weird” and “uncommon” foods that aren’t recognizable and harvest in August to September.
“These are things that we’re planting that you can’t look at and identify,” states Freeman, describing one plant she is introducing called “chocolate vine,” a plant producing purple flowers that smell like chocolate.
“The pod that grows out of it is like a fruit but resembles a seed pod and it tastes like tapioca. There will be no clues, although we will have a Latin name for the vegetables,” Freeman said.
The soil is being tested by Penn State Center so that the proper vegetables are planted in the best quality land.
“We are starting to plant at the beginning of April and we hope to harvest by the end of August,” states Peluso.
Mayor Ravenstahl is one of the 17 founding members of cities of service, which has grown to encompass 110 members today. ServePGH and the City’s Department of Public Works are both supporting the Edible Gardens project and its volunteers. The gardens will be taken care of by 20-40 volunteers each and if needed the city’s Green Team will step in to help. Volunteers can sign up through the online application process found at http://pittsburghpa.gov/neighborhoodinitiatives/ediblegardens.
Edible Gardens on estimate will harvest and distribute nearly one ton of produce to at least 200 families in its first year. In the Manchester area, four gardens will complete the capacity of the neighborhood, being anchored within just blocks of each other.