Laura Winter could have ignored the children who swarmed around her community garden plot in the midst of an urban neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Side. “Can I help you, Miss Laura?” they would ask.
“The children didn’t even have a place to dig here, let alone garden. They love to dig!” she says. Winter saw an opportunity to start another garden, the Green Millennium, and to give inner-city children ownership of the project. “We started planting in 2000, and the idea of working to ‘green’ the new millennium sounded just right,” she explains.
Winter got permission to clean up a vacant lot across from the community gardens, and with volunteers and funds from the Three Rivers Foundation, she built raised beds on top of the 25-by-100-foot plot’s concrete foundation. The team added two picnic tables, and the Western Pennsylvania Carpenter’s Apprenticeship Program provided two large wooden arbors with benches so the garden could become a gathering place as well.
Twenty or more local children, ages five to thirteen, participate in the program every year. The gardeners, who have grown everything from green zebra tomatoes to Rosa Bianca eggplant, meet Wednesday evenings to water, weed, or just observe changes in the garden. Laura sees the project as a tool to “provide these children with an optimistic sense of ownership in their community, to use nature as the educational medium in an unlikely urban setting, and in time give them the ‘permission’ to be leaders in their own right, less accepting of inequitable conditions in their communities and in their own lives.”
For next year, Winter dreams of a second plot, twice as many seeds, artwork, more tools, a trailer to carry tools, and a wheelchair-accessible garden. All of that requires funds, of course, but Winter and her team believe fundraising is empowering. “During a house tour of our neighborhood, we set the children up with lemonade and seed stands,” she says. “Once we coached them along, they rendered us obsolete as they turned into natural-born salesmen. Their excitement after raising nearly $300 was unequaled. When they returned to the garden the next week, there was no doubt as to who ‘owned’ the garden. It was theirs.”