By Emily Loeb
“She seemed surprised when I replied,
‘Nothing. They’re for the community.’”
I’ve grown a lot of food over the years. While the tiny seeds I plant grow into nutritious food that feeds my family, the most joy I’ve received from my gardening has been from the food that I didn’t eat. The gift came in giving the food away.
In 2013, my husband and I watched a TED Talk featuring a self-proclaimed gangsta gardener named Ron Finley. He talked about the food desert he inhabited in South Central LA, where he claimed that it was easier to get a gun than fresh food. He started pulling weeds and grass out of the strips between the sidewalk and the street, and he planted food. His actions were noticed by the community, who loved the readily available vegetables, and the city, who said that his gardening was illegal. There was an outcry from the community when the city threatened to pull out his gardens, so the police backed off and the gardens remained. The impact of having free food available was immediately noticeable to Mr. Finley, as he noted:
“When kids grow kale, they eat kale.”
After the 15-minute TED Talk, I turned to my husband and said, “I think we should build a share garden.” At this point in our lives, we were already experimenting with urban gardening. We had vegetable gardens located throughout our property, including blueberry bushes in the front and chickens in the back. We also had this weird two-foot square patch of earth that formerly housed a tree that the prior owners, or city, had removed. At that time, it mainly served as a home for weeds and dog droppings. But we had a clear vision: this would be our future share garden.
The next weekend, we turned over the soil, built and installed a wooden raised bed, filled it with soil, and planted vegetables, including tomatoes, snap peas, and lettuce. I painted a sign that said, “Share Garden: pick some produce, pay it forward.”
As soon as we installed the garden, we immediately noticed its impact. People stopped to ask us what it was about. As cherry tomatoes and peas ripened, people inquired if they were really allowed to pick them for free. One woman told me that her running group reconfigured their daily route to stop by our garden to grab a pea. I came home one day to find a bunch of basil on my front stoop as a thank you. Another time, someone gifted me a bottle of wine.
We have since moved from this house, but our desire to have a share garden didn’t go away. As a Mother’s Day gift last year, my husband and kids built me a new one. Our family again turned over soil, built a raised bed, transported soil to our new and bigger share garden, and planted seeds and starts.
Again, I have been inspired by the power and impact our little garden has had in our neighborhood. Many people tell me that they know our house by our share garden. In the small 14-by-2-foot space, we are able to grow a decent amount of food, and I’ve been surprised to see how many people harvest beans, cucumbers, kale, and tomatoes from it. I witnessed a neighbor standing in the street with a bowl collecting cherry tomatoes for her salad. A woman stopped her car as I was weeding and asked what we wanted in exchange for the vegetables. She seemed surprised when I replied, “Nothing. They’re for the community.” A man who was working down the street from my house sheepishly admitted that he’d been eating tomatoes off the plants throughout the entire summer and seemed relieved when I told him, “That’s what they’re there for.” Hanna Mosca, a Grow Pittsburgh farmer who manages Shiloh Farms and the greenhouse at the Frick Museum, stopped my family when we were headed on a walk and said that she was so inspired by our project that she wanted to donate starters for the share garden.
As we deal with being isolated from friends and family due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m anxiously awaiting my summer harvest, when we can share our bounty with our community and neighbors. I look forward to interacting with our garden visitors from my porch and relish in how part of my community has expanded via a strip of land that is normally regarded as a waste of space or a maintenance challenge.
Of all the things I’ve grown, I have to say that cultivating community has been the best. We’re always looking for ways to expand our garden and hope that our share garden will inspire others to build one of their own. My dream is to see every curb strip filled with food, available for anyone who needs or wants it. This year we pulled out the grass from our other curb strip and planted corn. We can’t wait to give the ears, and our hearts, to the community.
Writer & Photographer: Emily Loeb of Point Breeze
Emily Loeb is a non-profit executive director and writer. She runs the Gendler Grapevine Project, which promotes the connection between Jewish tradition, social justice and the environment, and Shattering Glass Ceilings Scholarship, which is a grassroots scholarship fund that she founded for women who are first-generation college students. Her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, The Kansas City Star, Print Newspaper, KevinMD.com, and Physician Family Magazine. She gardens and lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children.
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