ORMSBY KIDS COMMUNITY GARDEN introduces farming to the future

Kathleen Petrillo of South Side Community Council

A patch of land is nestled unassumingly near the Ormsby Recreation Center in the South Side. It’s small and quiet, autumn rustling through the stems and stalks inside its fence, some bearing last, late straggling fruits. But still as it now is, at peak it’s as active as the swimming pool churning with cannonballs on one side and the basketball court vibrant with swishes and thumps on the other. This is the Ormsby Kids’ Community Garden, a project of the South Side Community Council, and it’s abundant. 

Kathleen Petrillo, Council board member and Ormsby liaison, had initially started the garden a decade ago with a few beds and a handful of  plants.  In a vulnerable location and without resources in place, it wasn’t its moment.  In 2021, people, materials, and support came together and the time was right. The old beds and a disorderly mint plant were removed, backing from Love Your Block and the Neighborhood Fund arrived, Grow Pittsburgh supplied equipment.

ripe and ready tomatoes

When attempts to find an affordable landscaper were unsuccessful, Petrillo took to social media in search of recommendations. The neighborhood itself showed up instead. “A bunch of mothers said, ‘we’ll come down and do it,’ “ she says. Claire Pro, director of South Side Kids, was glad to pitch in. “The garden is a great enrichment opportunity for the local children,” she says. So she, Petrillo, and others spent the summer digging. 

The next year, planting the garden began. And over the past summer, Petrillo says, “it flourished.” Cantaloupe, okra, potatoes, watermelon, berries, squash, a rogue sunflower “that isn’t supposed to be here,”, peppers, herbs, perennials for the bees, and a few cases of mistaken identity with zucchinis that were assumed to be cucumbers and ground cherries “which I thought were cherries but are tomatoes” grew, and grew, and grew.  Regular harvests were either left on a shelf outside the fence for anyone who could use them, or placed directly into the mouths of the young reapers. 

a camper tests a pepper

During the summer, the garden utilized participants in Ormsby Recreation Center’s camps. Now, afterschool programs lay the groundwork for next year, with grow lights, mats and the basics. Seeds and how they become plants, plants and how they become food.  “Urban farming is kind of a foreign concept,” says Pro. “We’re teaching these kids at a young age how to weed, seed, cultivate, and harvest, in an effort to educate local kids about sustainability and the health and environmental importance of growing their own food.” 

In addition to the children taking part in structured programs, there’s been participation from parents, park visitors, and anyone who wanted to jump in and volunteer. “All these kids would be around asking what we were doing,” Petrillo says. “ When we said, ‘We’re digging out the garden, you wanna come help?’ they’d say ‘YEAH!!!’ “

a small late summer harvest

Petrillo grew up with a garden, and that’s what motivated the creation of this one. “My dad’s garden was huge, and this was my pet project because I wanted to bring my father’s garden to the city.” Once she overheard three young boys talking. When one stated his wish to become a gardener when he grew up, the other two were in assent, wanting to follow the same path themselves. They have the chance to become interested in the process, and she views that as the greatest success.

And that interest could grow itself. A pot of mint or basil could easily appear on a kitchen windowsill; one plant could turn to many. Who knows, wresting a cherry tomato off the vine today could lead to the study of horticulture many tomorrows later. They’ve had a hand in the creation of food,  and a starting point for a lifelong appreciation and understanding of the transition from even a small farm to their very own tables. 

Claire Pro with young farmers