Phipps’ Homegrown program cultivates backyard gardens in food-insecure Pittsburgh neighborhoods

Photo: Alexa, Darius and Michelle Gainey.

Until two years ago, Michelle Gainey and her family had not done much gardening, except for growing a few containers of herbs and other small plants.

With the help of the Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens’ Homegrown program, a full-sized garden was installed at her home in Lincoln-Lemington. Within a few weeks, Michelle and her family started to reap the benefits of fresh produce and vegetables, from green beans and zucchini to jalapeno peppers and chamomile.

“I like it because it’s fresh, and I know what’s been put on it, what’s in the soil,” Michelle says. “My children get to go out and help plant and prune and water. When I’m making spaghetti, I can send them outside to get some fresh oregano or some fresh basil.”

The Homegrown program, established in 2013, serves food-insecure Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Applications are currently being accepted from families in Larimer, Belmar, Lincoln-Lemington and the East Hills.

The benefits of the program, which just reached its 300th garden installation, are demonstrated in ways beyond teaching people how to garden.

“We do an evaluation at the end of every year, and we found that the average Homegrown participant shared produce with nine people,” says Allison Glick, installation coordinator. “That’s quite a multiplier effect: You have people talking about vegetables. You have people sharing vegetables. I think that’s an important part of the program as well.”

Michelle’s garden has been helpful to her family in multiple ways. Her grocery bill has been reduced, and she has convenient access to healthy vegetables and greens. And her kids have become involved in gardening.

“My son (Darius, 10) enjoys everything from planting to picking,” Michelle says. “My daughter (Alexa, 13) likes to go out and pick, but she’s not an outdoors type. She’s a teenager, so she doesn’t do dirt very well.”

Pittsburgh’s topography, climate and even history present unusual challenges for home gardeners, according to  Glick. Some of the gardens must be fitted into sloping terrains or hillsides. The city’s weather – unseasonably hot and dry this year – must always be considered. And the soil itself is problematic.

“Because Pittsburgh has an industrial legacy … we don’t even bother with in-ground gardens,” says Glick, noting that most installations consist of raised beds. “It’s just as time-efficient and cost-effective to bring soil in so we don’t have to worry about contamination.”

There are other challenges Homegrown gardeners face. To deter hungry predators, outreach coordinator Lauren Dilorenze designed a “groundhog” fence – also effective against deer and rabbits – that features removable panels attached to the sides of the raised beds.

“The first part of the panel is made of metal that can’t be chewed through, and the top is plastic and kind of floppy,” Glick says. “The idea is that the groundhog sort of falls backward.”

Once the beds are installed, the Homegrown team stays in contact with the gardeners, many of whom have never gardened before or only have limited knowledge about growing vegetables. Michelle was given instructions about basic maintenance and how to draw grids. The Phipps’ gardeners returned this year to help reopen her garden.

“Normally we start building gardens in April and May,” Glick says, noting that installations were delayed this year because of the pandemic and a lack of college interns. “We were not able to put any new gardens in until the beginning of August. But we did eight in August, and we’re going to do another eight to ten in September. Which is kind of a present, considering at the beginning of summer we didn’t know if we were going to do any.”

Families outside of the targeted neighborhoods can benefit from the program, too. Download the free Homegrown Handbook, a comprehensive guide that covers everything from frame building to plant placement to harvesting. Other PDF guides are also available to download. And while you’re on the Phipps page, check out The Homegrown Herald, a garden newsletter full of tips, recipes and upcoming events.