Neighborhood green thumb: Community gardens


 The Olde Allegheny Community Gardens in the Mexican War Streets is one of the oldest around. Photo by Henry Clay Webster.

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All around the Northside, flowers have bloomed, trees are flourishing, vegetables are growing and gardens have taken shape.

Not all Northsiders are blessed with open yard space, but the area’s 13 Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Gardens and neighborhood community gardens provide would-be gardeners plenty of space to tend flowers and grow healthy veggies.

Community Gardens

Volunteer-tended flower and vegetable gardens on publicly-owned property are becoming more popular as communities look for ways to be “green” and beautify abandoned lots.

Community gardens generally work one of two ways. The first option is for each person to tend her own plot and keep what she grows, and the second is that everyone takes responsibility for the entire garden and splits the produce evenly.

The Olde Allegheny Community Garden in the Mexican War Streets is one of the oldest community gardens on the Northside and uses the first model, said Garden Master Jana Thompson.

“Most people grow a combination of vegetables and flowers,” Thompson said, but “Some people are only there for salsa.”

The Troy Hill Community Garden Cooperative uses the second model, and is getting started this year, said director Chris McGuigan.

The main benefit of community gardens are their use of space. “For one, it could just be an empty lot. It provides a nice walkthrough, and all that ambient green,” Thompson said.

Another major benefit is the ability to grow food organically. “We’re growing better food than what we can buy, and beautifying a lot.”

McGuigan doesn’t expect a large harvest in the Troy Hill garden this year, but said that co-op members are excited to get the project started. He hopes to expand to more vacant lots next year.

Thompson’s job as garden master is to “harass” people when they need to weed their plots, collect money from members to pay water bills and maintain a waiting list.

Some of the Olde Allegheny Garden’s lots are city-owned, and others are private lots — Thompson knows that eventually the owner will want them back for his own purposes, but she’s okay with that, and grateful they have use of them when they’d otherwise be sitting empty.

“There’s always going to be another vacant lot,” she said. “[A community garden in a specific lot] might not last forever, and that’s okay.”

For those interested in starting a community garden, Thompson recommends looking into the American Community Garden Association ( and Grow Pittsburgh ( Both organizations offer tips and information on grant money to get started.

“There’s a tremendous amount of resources for setting up [a community garden],” Thompson said. “Get everything done in the beginning … Once you are established you are much more expected to be self-sufficient.”

That means would-be community gardeners need to take care of all their soil remediation, fences and watering equipment they will need right when they set up rather than doing it piecemeal.

The Troy Hill Co-op received its startup funding from the Charm Bracelet Project’s Northside Microgrant Program and is using it for signage, soil remediation and fences.

“Many of us don’t have the sunlight to garden,” Thompson said, but having a community garden allows them the space and resources — and community — to grow fresh food and provide a little relief from the hot city summer.

Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Gardens

For those who want to garden but don’t want the responsibility of a community or personal garden, there are the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy community gardens.

Any individual or group can volunteer to work on or maintain one of the organization’s many gardens, which are often found in business corridors and in high-profile neighborhood gateways.

The Northside has 13 gardens scattered throughout its neighborhoods. The gardens, mostly located on PennDOT- or city-owned lots, are supported by corporate and organizational sponsors and beautify communities.

Gavin Deming, a community specialist with the conservancy, said the gardens have two goals. The first is getting volunteers outside and “connecting folks to nature in a tangible way.” The second is to beautify and revitalize “places of note” like neighborhood gateways.

“Typically groups that have volunteered in the past are happy to volunteer again,” Deming said.

 Each garden has a garden steward who takes care of the garden throughout the summer. According to the conservancy website, stewards generally water and weed once a week.

Other volunteer jobs include planting volunteers that help plant the garden at the start of the growing season, and then volunteers who help maintain the garden throughout the year.

If you are interested in becoming a garden steward or an occasional volunteer, visit for more information, or call Lynn McGuire-Olzak at 412-586-2324.

Although the planting season has passed, Deming said the conservancy is always happy to take on new volunteers, and also accepts financial donations.


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