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Sharing Food Builds Community

by Lisa Duchene

In a rough neighborhood of Wilkinsburg, just outside Pittsburgh, a grape arbor made of castaway wooden ladders leads from the sidewalk along Rebecca Avenue into a sunny space where summer’s last tomatoes, peppers, and Swiss chard grow, sharing tidy, narrow, brick-lined beds with daylilies and irises. Two small rows of Ruby Queen sweet corn are brown and dried. Broccoli, leeks, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts soak in the October sunshine.

Chris Condello holds peppers.

Deeper into the lot, newly created beds planted with shade-loving perennials encircle a scrounged table and chairs placed atop a blanket of wood chips. Here, seven volunteers, who are Penn State Extension Master Gardeners of Allegheny County, gather on Thursday evenings to eat meals of garden produce cooked by a volunteer chef on a donated grill.

Starting in spring 2012, the volunteer Master Gardeners created a community garden from scratch as a class project following their horticulture course work in fall 2011. They secured a lease from the landowner, tested the soil, supplied water, cleared enough tree trimmings, weeds, and debris to fill a five-ton dump truck, brought in countless loads of leaf mulch and wood chips, designed and dug beds, and planted donated seedlings and perennials.

Nearly every day, Chris Condello, a young, passionate gardener, is at “The Garden Table,” weeding, tending, digging—and dreaming of the next plant, bed, or season and all the good he hopes this garden will achieve.

Chris Condello works in his garden. PHOTO: JEFF SWENSEN

Chris Condello PHOTO: JEFF SWENSEN

His mission is to educate and feed the local community, particularly kids. “And to do it unconditionally,” says Condello. “Just because somebody’s not going to come and give us work time doesn’t mean I’m not going to give them food or talk to them if they want to come up and learn something.”

Where others see abandoned lots and urban blight, Condello sees land that can be cultivated to grow food for a hungry neighborhood: a field of corn, grove of fruit trees, or vegetable and flower beds. He hopes “The Garden Table” will demonstrate that anyone in a neighborhood can create a garden, feed their neighbors, and in the process lift their community.

Condello’s landlord, Kasey Connors, is also one of the seven Master Gardener volunteers. She witnessed how Condello’s work gardening with kids on an abandoned lot on Whitney Avenue, five blocks away, helped the neighborhood. Simply leaving a basket on his front porch full of extra homegrown produce built goodwill and friendships among residents in an area plagued by violence and blight, they say. About half of the block’s 25 houses are abandoned.

When that garden on Whitney Avenue was lost, Connors and Condello decided to become Master Gardeners, seeking like-minded, community-oriented, and generous gardeners. Connors wants to know whether the success of Condello’s Whitney Avenue garden can be replicated in other places.

So far, there are promising signs of community support around the new, young garden. 

Neighbors have popped in to ask about tomatoes and peppers and help out a bit. The gardeners have made friends with the reverend at the church two doors down. He now helps by mowing what little lawn remains.

“Sharing food creates community,” says Connors.