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Urban flower farms gain momentum in Pittsburgh

| Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
greenSinner owners Jonathan Weber and Jimmy Lohr have their portrait taken inside of their greenhouse in Lawrenceville Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
greenSinner's microfarm in Lawrenceville Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
A jack frost fern for sale at greenSinner in Lawrenceville Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
greenSinner's microfarm in Lawrenceville Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
A poinsettia for sale at greenSinner in Lawrenceville Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014.

A Pittsburgh floral shop is planting seeds for future growth that will transform a vacant city hillside into a thriving garden.

GreenSinner is expanding beyond its Upper Lawrenceville location with a four-acre urban flower farm in Observatory Hill in the North Side.

“There's something really appealing about being in the city,” says Jonathan Weber, GreenSinner farmer. “There are a lot of places that, because of the landscape, aren't suited for buildings. This is currently an overgrown hillside. It hasn't been cultivated in at least 50 years. The soil is pretty rich.”

Weber and floral designer Jimmy Lohr started GreenSinner — so named “ 'cause it's easier being a green sinner than a green saint,” according their website — four years ago at the Pittsburgh Public Market before moving into their own workshop, garden and retail store in Lawrenceville.

Tucked behind their Butler Street building is an urban micro-farm on less than a quarter-acre, which provides about one-third of their annual cut-flower needs. Between weddings, events and deliveries, that added up to more than 6,000 stems of cut flowers and foliage in 2014. They also work closely with other local farmers and producers to source material.

To meet the growing demands on their business, Weber and Lohr have purchased four acres of land across town for a woodland garden called Midsummer Hill Farm, in honor of the Summer Hill neighborhood, which the property overlooks. They will maintain and, eventually, expand their Butler Street storefront, as well.

Today, “farm” is a generous term for the Observatory Hill property. It will take time and work to convert the overgrown, partially wooded hillside at the end of a dead-end road into a functional space.

And, naturally, it will take some green.

To raise the necessary funds, GreenSinner has launched an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign running through January with a goal of $10,000. In exchange for helping to get things blooming on the farm, donors will reap rewards including flower deliveries, plant collections and subscriptions to the 2015 cut-flower Community Supported Agriculture program.

GreenSinner started its Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program this past summer. A CSA essentially gives patrons shares of local farms without requiring them to do any work. GreenSinner supporters receive a bouquet of fresh flowers from July until frost, either weekly for $240 or every two weeks for $120. In addition to subscriptions purchased through the Indiegogo campaign, the GreenSinner CSA is open for orders any time through July.

All funds raised from the campaign will be used to eradicate knotweed, build flower beds and erect high tunnels and row covers to extend the growing season.

While the entire Midsummer Hill Farm project will take several years to come to fruition, Weber hopes to have a few beds of annuals ready next growing season, which would allow them to double the amount of flowers they produced in Lawrenceville in 2014. The goal is to produce enough to meet all their demands in five years.

“It's about sustainability,” Lohr says.

He and Weber are part of the slow flowers movement emerging across the country to promote local and American-grown flowers, along with fair and environmentally sensitive practices.

For Pittsburgh florists, “local” can have a flexible definition, as availability of frequently requested flowers is often limited.

“Our footprint is North America. We try to get as local as we can,” Lohr says. “But what do you do if it's a wedding — someone's special day — and it's like, ‘Sorry, there's nothing white?' ”

Just as consumers have come to care about the environmental and economic impacts of the food industry, more people are paying closer attention to how their flowers are delivered to the United States, Weber says.

“Almost all the flowers you buy, whether you go into a grocery store and buy them or buy them from a florist, come from abroad, mostly from South America,” he says. “People don't realize this.”

While most flowers were grown domestically through the 1970s, the climate and geography of South America drew the industry there in the 1980s, Weber says. Over the years, this has raised concern among florists about pesticide use, labor conditions and exorbitant transportation costs.

“Now, it's reversing, and people are asking if it's really worth it to transport them halfway across the world,” Weber says.

“Here, there are a few farms that have caught on and are really starting to get behind interesting specialty flowers, but a lot of the flowers that are grown are from a farmer who sells vegetables at a farmer's market and does flowers as an add-on. That's why we're growing. There isn't enough to supply us, so we get to grow a lot of things ourselves.”

Debra Prinzing, a Seattle-based writer and lecturer whom Lohr calls “the godmother of the slow flowers movement,” appreciates GreenSinner's efforts and expects more floral shops to follow suit.

“The renaissance that's been going on quietly for many years now has a really vocal group of people like Jimmy and Jonathan who are saying, ‘That doesn't make sense to be importing a perishable product from another continent, using jet fuel and not knowing what the growing practices are,' ” she says.

“I really admire them for trying to find a solution. You hear a lot of excuses, like, ‘I can't source locally because there are simply none grown in the area,' but that's because we've taken our eyes off the ball and become very dependent on outsourcing.

“Jimmy and Jonathan are not complacent,” Prinzing says. “They see there is not enough available volume to meet their demand, so they grow their own flowers to ensure they know the source.”

Details: greensinner.com

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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