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A Conversation with Laura Winter

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A bi-lingual secretary by occupation, Laura Winter is the "garden lady" to the kids of the North Side. Winter is instrumental in the creation and maintenance of a children's community garden in the Mexican War Streets; now that spring has arrived, the 25-by-100-foot lot on Monterey Street is being prepped for its sixth growing season.

 

 

What was the lot like to start with?

Full of knee-high weeds, tires, metal, all sorts of stuff. After we cleared it, we got dirt and mulch from the city, and that took about two months to spread. People said, "Bring in a backhoe," but I said, "If I do that, then the kids don't get any ownership, and that's key." So the kids helped spread the dirt.

 

How has the garden taken shape over the years?

The first year we just had flowers and we got the soil tested for lead. The following year we had some vegetables. We got a grant from the Three Rivers Community Foundation, so we used that money for infrastructure to build raised beds using cinder blocks. The first few years, we never even got the entire lot developed. Now there's no mistaking it as a children's garden. We have a sign, picnic benches, arbors, a composter, bean teepees.

 

And you got a mural from the Sprout Fund.

In gardening terms, you talk about "winter interest" -- something to attract your attention -- and that's the mural. Its theme is "From Seed to Harvest," and also A-to-Z, so it starts with an acorn and ends with a bushel of zucchini.

 

What do the kids enjoy doing the most?

They love playing in the dirt, so now we just leave one spot unplanted so they can just dig. Number two is probably digging for worms. They also really enjoy growing the flowers; they can take those home. We let the kids do as much as they can on their own. We have a lot of kid-sized implements on hand -- rakes, shovels, hoes.

 

As the garden has grown, how has your approach changed?

We used to just get out there and garden, but now we try to do some kind of activity session that's related to what we're doing that day, like dissecting flowers to understand the different parts. Or do a mini-lesson on composting. We integrate that sort of thing as much as we can, though you have to be really flexible -- you never know how many kids might show up, or what ages they might be.

 

What do you plant?

We have raspberries and strawberries. We plant peppers, tomatoes; we try to do things like cantaloupes, cucumbers, beans, squash, and different kinds of flowers. The sunflowers are definitely the kids' favorite plant.

 

Besides the kids, do you get many adult volunteers?

Originally it was myself and a friend working on the garden, but since then, the support I've gotten from the community has grown so much. We've received grants from the Sarah Heinz House, the Mexican War Streets Society and the Pittsburgh Men's Garden Club. And people in the neighborhood have helped a lot. I've had people who've come by and said, "This is a neat project -- can I help?" Last summer we had gardening parties -- where we worked and then had a barbecue -- and every time at least 20 people showed up. We made incredible progress on the garden last year. It is just the best feeling to have everyone contributing and enjoying it. I tell people, even if you can only come once throughout the entire summer, that's one time the kids see that someone else has taken an interest in them and their project.

 

To see a community garden grow and sustain itself must be very rewarding.

To me the most beautiful thing is to drive by the garden and see some kids picking raspberries. Because we don't have it fenced off, they can go in there any time they want. I think it's a very positive reflection on the garden project that we haven't had any major vandalism. The garden is pretty much kept clean -- you don't find the same amount of litter that you find in the streets. The neighborhood and the kids keep a watch on it. The kids know it's theirs.

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