Grow Pittsburgh’s mission is simple enough: to teach people how to grow food—and, in the process, to promote the benefits that gardens bring to neighborhoods. With its focus on three main program pillars—School Gardens, Community Projects, and Farm Education & Production—Grow Pittsburgh is also assuming the reins at Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery in neighboring Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, this year. It will allow them to up their seedling production from about 10,000 seedlings per year to more than 30,000.
Currently the nonprofit grows its starter plants in greenhouses located at The Frick Pittsburgh, including all types of small vegetable plants, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and flowers to promote pollinators. The organization was founded in 2005 and has been a registered 501c(3) entity since 2008.
According to Jake Seltman, Grow Pittsburgh executive director, simply planting one seed is the best way to get involved in the movement. “It’s easy to get involved and to experience the positive benefits that growing food can bring to your life,” explains Seltman, who has been at the helm of the nonprofit for three years now. “I personally love to grow food, and I have a large vegetable, herb, and flower garden here in Pittsburgh. Growing food helps us connect to the world around us. It connects us to our food, to the soil and our environment, to our community, to our history, and to ourselves. Food is one thing that brings us all together.”
Grow Pittsburgh uses growing food “as a platform to bring people and communities together,” according to the group’s website, “while inspiring them to be healthier, learn new skills, care for the earth, [and make] the region a more livable, equitable, and desirable place to be.”
Seltman began with Grow Pittsburgh as the director of educational programming in 2012, tapping into his deep background in education and a specific passion and belief in the value of experiential farm-based programming for people of all ages. He manages a staff of about 20, which grows seasonally, no pun intended. With a budget of approximately $1.5 million annually, Grow Pittsburgh is on the average to medium size for national nonprofits..
So, how exactly does gardening and growing food build community and uplift people? “When we ask people what they love most about participating in a community garden or urban farm, in addition to providing access to delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, we often hear that the sense of community that is built when working alongside neighbors toward a shared goal of growing, preparing, and sharing food is unique and extraordinary,” Seltman says.
It is simple yet powerful food for thought. “We see growing food as a vehicle toward creating positive and impactful change in the social, economic, environmental, and educational sectors of our lives,” he says. “One of Grow Pittsburgh’s values is food sovereignty—which we define as supporting everyone’s right to access, produce, and distribute healthy and culturally relevant food. We know that urban farms and gardens are one of the ways in which we can support this effort.”
In terms of reach, the group has helped start 37 community gardens in Allegheny County (with a population of about 1.2 million people) and supported another 65 by making mini-grants of tools, seedlings, and equipment. Grow Pittsburgh has started 40 school gardens as well, including 30 in the Pittsburgh public school system. It estimates 15,000 backyard gardeners are active in the area through clubs and seedling sales.
A community garden differs from an educational garden program in that it is adult- and neighbor-driven. “We help with community participation work and get buy-in before they start,” explains Ryan Walsh, Grow Pittsburgh development and communications director. “These vary widely in terms of space, number of beds, and why they grow.” For example, the goal might be to stock a food pantry or to feed a family.” School gardens, on the other hand, are intended for learning about growing food and finding ways to integrate eating healthy and gardening into a school’s curriculum.
Another reason all this matters is the group’s mission to assist designated “food deserts” throughout the US by partnering with other organizations in the region and nationally. Much of the programming happens in places where there’s no access to fresh food within a walkable distance (defined as about a mile). In another program, called the Youth Market, Grow Pittsburgh hires 20 high school students for the summer so that they have a paid job while learning how to grow food, cook it, and sell it at farm stands that pop up in communities without access to fresh food. The students sell the produce at a low price, even though it’s organically grown, keeping it on par with local grocery store prices. All proceeds go back into the programs.
Another great partner for Grow Pittsburgh is Tree Pittsburgh, which grows trees to be planted all over the city. The group offers educational programming and organizes tree giveaways. It’s working to reforest the city’s urban canopy of shade trees, ensuring open spaces and curb strips are full of diverse and healthy trees.
Chasing the Next Dream
After two decades as an urban agricultural resource and private business, Garden Dreams is beginning a new chapter. Garden Dreams owner Mindy Schwartz, who also co-founded Grow Pittsburgh, donated her garden center property to the Allegheny Land Trust, preserving it as part of the new Three Rivers Agricultural Land Initiative, a joint venture with Grow Pittsburgh to support the major functions of acquiring and supporting land and projects for long-term agricultural use. Garden Dreams grows seedlings for backyard and community gardeners, making for a perfect alignment with Grow Pittsburgh and its seed growing project. A new agreement between Grow Pittsburgh and Garden Dreams will give Grow Pittsburgh one more place for its production, tripling or quadrupling its seedling growth.
Grow Pittsburgh will expand its operations to the site immediately and will retain the Garden Dreams name for the location. This long-time urban farm and plant nursery joins Grow Pittsburgh’s other urban agriculture production sites at Braddock Farms in Braddock and Shiloh Farm in Point Breeze North, as well as its partnership with The Frick Pittsburgh. Grow Pittsburgh plans to build upon the Garden Dreams legacy and increase capacity for urban farmers and gardeners by creating an agriculture hub and social enterprise in Wilkinsburg that will be home to a retail seedling business, youth job training program, a new greenhouse space, and an urban farmer workshare program. A robust educational workshop series will support the network of gardeners and urban farmers throughout Allegheny County.
Grow Pittsburgh will provide seedlings for sale to gardeners at the Garden Dreams site this spring while implementing plans to demolish two abandoned buildings on the property and build three new greenhouses that will host a workshare program with urban farmers in the region and bolster organic seedling production.
“We are thrilled to continue the long tradition of farming and growing,” says Seltman. “Garden Dreams has been a great resource and pillar in the urban agriculture community, and we are honored to be charged with continuing to grow the legacy that Mindy has created.”
Early funding partners in support of the project include Neighborhood Allies, the Segal Family Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Grow Pittsburgh will host an open house, seedling sales, and other public events throughout the spring to ensure that Garden Dreams customers, neighbors, and local gardeners can help guide future programming on the site.