Beautiful but small: Tiny public gardens brighten up neighborhoods
By Alice T. Carter
Published: Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
For many, the pleasure of a community garden is discovery.
These urban pockets of flowers and foliage turn up in unexpected places — a sedate green island of calm next to a busy artery of through traffic or a sudden riotous explosion of color that interrupts the shoulder-to-shoulder march of townhouses along a sidewalk.
The term “community garden” conjures up images of plots of raised-bed rectangles in which individual urban farmers nurture fat red tomatoes, tall corn stalks and a couple of fast-spreading zucchini vines.
But community gardens sprout more than flowers, vegetables and herbs.
There's a tendency to measure the success of a community garden in terms of the number of acres planted or pounds of produce harvested, says Bobby Wilson, president of the American Community Gardening Association in Columbus, Ohio.
Without urban gardens, many of the spaces would be bare or trash-strewn spaces waiting for development.
Instead, they become temporary public gardens filled with sculpture, clumps of bright yellow day lilies, aromatic borders of herbs or simply a place to literally pause to smell the roses.
“It's really beautiful,” is the comment Jana Thompson often hears when someone stumbles upon the colorfully fenced Olde Allegheny Community Garden in the 1300 block of Sherman Street, where Thompson serves as the garden's co-coordinator.
Many gardens post signs that invite visitors to stroll the paths or sit on a bench under full-sized trees.
The gardens make neighborhoods more neighborly as residents encounter each other there.
“It's a place for the community to interact,” Thompson says.
People get to know each other while working side-by-side to tend their individual plots or when banding together to weed communal beds or lay path stones or attending neighborhood parties at the garden.
“It's the nurturing and fellowship that comes from the relationships they develop,” says Wilson. “A community garden is about bringing people together.”
Here are a handful we've discovered:
Known informally as the Octopus Garden, a plot of land at 131 South Aiken Ave. is a colorful convergence of art and nature. Kristin Hughes, an associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Design, owns the land, which is open to the public and maintained by people from the neighborhood. But it's Octavia, a two-faced, black-and-white mosaic octopus, who presides over the space.
Since its creation 11 years ago, the garden has doubled in size and 15 families now tend its fruit trees and beds of herbs, flowers and vegetables.
Colorful bits of art are sprinkled throughout the space that extends from South Aiken to Latham Street.
It's more than a place to grow Swiss chard or get kids interested in gardening, Hughes says: “It encourages the use of all your senses.”
— Alice T. Carter
Baum Grove parklet is a tree-shaded wedge of property at the convergence of three streets – Roup Avenue, South Fairmont and Harriet Streets.
Concrete benches curve around flower beds that invite residents and passers-by to sit, read and relax or engage in a game of chess or a picnic lunch at tables decorated with colorful mosaics.
A joint project of the Friendship Preservation Group and Friendship Development Associates, Baum Grove is also a site for neighborhood gatherings, as well as community events such as The Friendship Flower and Folk Festival held in May.
— Alice T. Carter
On the corner of Western Avenue and Brighton Road is a small-but-flourishing garden maintained by the Allegheny West Civic Council.
“The garden started long before I came to the neighborhood,” says Mary Callison, one of the nook's principal caretakers, who arrived in the North Side about 15 years ago.
By the time she got there, it was “looking a little sad,” Callison says. With the help of the Allegheny West Civic Council and a few volunteers, the garden was returned to tip-top shape in no time. Neighbors offered plantings from their gardens, which accounts for the variety of vegetation the garden features today.
Gazanias, Asian and tiger lilies, cosmos and salvia flowers are among the plants that color the garden. It sports a stone path, a small bench and a rather big, low-hanging hydrangea tree.
Callison and fellow council volunteers hold monthly clean-up days that eliminate weeds, introduce new plant life, and keep the garden thriving. Tulips and daffodils will bloom in the spring.
— Emma Deihle
Folks stopping by Pleasant Hills Public Library are in for a treat beyond books. The grounds outside the quaint building at the corner of Old Clairton and West Bruceton roads are maintained by the Pleasant Hills Garden Club and create a colorful welcome for all passersby.
Everything from bright orange daisies to rich mauve lilies, sun-yellow begonias and multi-colored impatiens line the area leading to the library entrance. Nearby resident and garden club member Dolores Howley tends to the space every other day. Her strategy for deciding what she plants is simple: Get what's pretty.
“People seem to like all the different colors,” she says.
A portion of the garden serves as an homage to the area's veterans. The ground beneath the library's clock and flag is lined with red and white petunias and blue salvia. Howley might mix it up next year with the addition of red and white geraniums.
The entire thing is an effort to give library patrons a lovely welcome.
“It's a very colorful walkway,” Howley says.
The Pleasant Hills Garden Club will hold a free flower show on Sept. 20, at the borough building, 410 East Bruceton Road.
— Rachel Weaver
There are two public gardens cared for by the Greenfield Community Association that are within feet of each other. One greets visitors as they come across the Greenfield Bridge onto Beechwood Boulevard, while the other is a little ways up the hill on Ronald Street near Greenfield Avenue. The one near the bridge also is being maintained by Kimicata Brothers, landscape and irrigation experts from Hazelwood, who have donated plants and manpower.
“I think when you have gardens like these in a neighborhood, they can encourage others in the neighborhood to plant gardens,” says Bill Barker of Greenfield, who, with other volunteers, help keep the gardens blooming by planting and watering and weeding. “I have always enjoyed gardening.”
The gardens are maintained March through October. The Ronald Street location was once funded by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
Mary Bernacki, one of the association's board members, says there is a lot of interest in keeping the gardens going, even without funding from the conservancy. She credits the Greenfield Community Association for working hard to raise funds to bring back a lot of activities and events to add to the neighborhood and the gardens are one of those many projects. They help beautify the neighborhood and are something people who walk or drive by can enjoy. A lot of what gets done is because the association and residents of Greenfield give freely of their time, and sometimes their money, to help support the neighborhood.
— JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
Mexican War Streets
Since 1982, the picturesque, historic Mexican War Streets area has had its hard brick-and-asphalt edges softened a bit by the Olde Allegheny Community Gardens. Enter its decorative wooden gate on and, suddenly, you're in the woods, or a remote farm, and all you hear is the buzzing of bees or the chirp of crickets.
It's a colorful, lovingly tended — but not rigidly so — expression of the neighborhood's resilience. Brick paths wander through plots of vegetables, clumps of peonies and rosebushes. There are 50 plots in all, in which the members can grow pretty much whatever they want for a fee of $30 a year. This is one of the most-dense, built-up parts of Pittsburgh, so every bit of green space is valuable.
— Michael Machosky
The garden in front of the Shaler North Hills Library is an effort to enliven a busy route with color, as well as support the library's efforts.
Library director Sharon McRae says the Shaler Garden Club took over the area in the fall of 2012 and transformed a drab 70-foot-by-9-foot area into a pretty garden of perennials and shrubs.
It became a “total community project” with donations from individuals, as well as help from the Neely Funeral Home, she says.
“I am so grateful because I don't have a green thumb,” she says.
Judy Schiffbauer, civic and conservation chairwoman of the 92-year-old club, says the garden includes such plants as Alaskan weeping ceder, dragon's blood sedum, a curly filbert, Japanese maple, boxwoods, Southern magnolia, golden spirea and some perennials.
Club member Marita Madsen says the group decided to maintain the garden as another way of supporting the work of the library.
The club contributes funds to the library generated by its Great Local Gardens Contest and garden tour. And it maintains the adjoining Kier Garden, endowed by a local family for many years, McRae says.
— Bob Karlovits
The Irwin Garden Club, a nonprofit group founded in 1927, is acting on its “Sow your Seeds” motto by adopting Irwin Park for a community-service project. Club members thought this park, just north of Route 30, was a good start for its city-beautification efforts. Some of the more than 60 members of the club broke ground in April for the little garden, which surrounds the park's sign at the entrance. Since then, members have installed plants including mapleleaf hydrangea, rosebushes, chicks and hens, St. John's wort, canna, coreopsis and mums. In the fall, they will plant spring bulbs like tulips, says member Diane Kowalski.
Gardens, as growing and ever-changing things, are works in progress.
“It's not really growing in the way we'd like it, but it's … new and it just takes time,” she says.
— Kellie B. Gormly
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