First-time visitors to the City of Pittsburgh who wander down Sherman Avenue might find themselves on the “Stroll and Sniff” tour. No, it’s not the opportunity to smell the Steel City aromas left over from Pittsburgh’s steel-producing days. It’s the chance to encounter the sights and scents of gardening in the middle of an urban landscape.
Nestled among four lots on Sherman Avenue and two lots on Arch Street is Olde Allegheny Community Gardens. The gardens have functioned as a much-cherished community green space for the last 40 years. Today, they are home to 37 gardeners growing everything from fig trees to tomatoes.
The gardens attracts birds and butterflies, giving the opportunity to observe nature at work. Neighbors started the “stroll and sniff” tours to enjoy all that the gardens have to offer.
“If you look at the gardens, we grow about everything you can possibly grow,” said Gwen Moorer, one of four garden captains overseeing the green space. “We really are an urban farm. I’ve not really seen anything fail.”
Moorer moved to Pittsburgh from New Jersey in the 1970s. She remembers when the gardens first started. “Many of the people living here were originally from the south,” she recalled. “They wanted to garden, but there wasn’t enough room on their land.”
Legendary North Side community activist Ethel Hagler spearheaded the green space movement that eventually became Olde Allegheny Community Gardens. She approached property owner Tom Armstrong to ask if they could use his vacant lot to start a community garden. Once he agreed, she then had to seek the city’s support for the project from then-Mayor Tom Murphy.
The fruits of her labor continue to bless urban gardeners today. Anyone can plant on the sites, said Moorer, after submitting an application and paying the $30 annual plot registration fee. Gardeners must commit to tending to their plots. “Garden captains review each of the gardens,” said Moorer. “If a person tends to let their garden go to weeds or become overgrown, we notify the gardener, tell them our concerns, ask if there’s any issues and offer assistance.”
Gardeners have 30 days to address the problems before their plot is reassigned to someone on the waiting list. Moorer said roughly two to five people are on the waiting list for plots each year.
Just north of the city in neighboring Millvale, community members can enjoy a similar program with the Gardens of Millvale. Established in 2010, the gardens encompass three different lots dedicated to green space. The first lot became available after Girty’s Run flooded, leaving a house ruined. When it was demolished, the lot stood empty and unused.
Instead of continuing to leave the space idle, it was turned into a garden for the community to grow its own food. The borough acquired two more parcels off Grant Street to complete its green spaces. Now, they have a large greenhouse and an orchard with viable fruit trees as part of the community garden.
“And we have a nice mix of fruit and veggies we can make available to the community,” said Maya Guerin, garden manager. “Up until recently, with the opening of Millvale Market, Millvale has been a food desert for a very long time. There was not adequate, walkable availability for things like fruits and vegetables and fresh meats.”
Guerin was brought in to manage the gardens 2.5 years ago during the height of the COVID pandemic. Her role was intended to be short-term. However, she saw the potential for the community garden to turn into an educational opportunity in addition to a place for residents to grow their own food. The borough secured grants to continue covering her salary and the maintenance of the gardens.
“Our current focus and mission are to give people the space and knowledge to be self-sustaining and grow their own food,” Guerin said. People can rent and use the raised beds and other designated areas. “We operate between a community garden and an urban farm.”
There are not a lot of rules for use, Guerin said. The available lots are offered to residents or business owners in Millvale first to maintain accountability. “We have gardeners who have used the space since the beginning,” she said. “We use an application process and do a first-come, first-served award process. People who have gardened for years always get first dibs on available space each year.”
The orchard with established fruit trees is available for residents to come and pick in moderation. “It’s pretty amazing to walk through the middle of Millvale and see these ripe, beautiful peaches on trees,” said Guerin of the orchard that also features a sour cherry tree.
It takes a long time for fruit trees to produce fruit, said Guerin. This year, the garden plans to add elderberry bushes to the mix, which can take up to three years to mature.
Gardeners choose what to grow and the sky is the limit, Guerin added. However, artificial pesticides and other growth methods aren’t allowed on the community garden plots. “We are a 100 percent green-growing garden,” she said. “We get compost from Best Feeds every year so we can give those resources to gardeners so they don’t have to pay out of pocket.”
Continual maintenance is a must when gardening on plots. If Guerin observes a neglected plot, she contacts the owner first. If they fail to respond, she makes whatever is growing there available to the community.
The garden impacts the community in more ways than one. Guerin said she’s built a solid relationship with the Millvale Community Library, which is part of the free-fridge program. “They applied for a grant to get a free fridge that’s on their deck,” she said. The refrigerator, and any food that goes into it, is for the community. The Gardens of Millvale distributes its produce to the community through the fridge.
“Last year alone, we distributed over 1,000 pounds of food to the community using that free fridge,” said Guerin. “That resource has been instrumental to our community and helpful to us to distribute directly to the people who need it.”