Photo courtesy of Millvale Community Library

From fire and flood, a community garden was born. That’s the abbreviated story of The Gardens of Millvale anyway. Following flooding in 2004 and 2007, a number of houses on Millvale’s Butler Street were torn down due to damage. A couple years later, fire destroyed seven more houses in the riverfront community, leaving the street with a number of vacant lots. In 2009, a group of community members applied to and were selected for Grow Pittsburgh’s Community Garden Program, then in its inaugural year, and The Gardens of Millvale was established in 2010. The garden graduated from the program two years later and has been growing ever since. Today, The Gardens of Millvale spans 11 lots, and includes an orchard, hoop house, offsite apiary, hops trellises, pollinator habitats, more than 30 raised beds, and more, with gardeners ranging in age from 16-84.

Denise Rudar has witnessed the garden’s evolution over the last decade firsthand, from being a volunteer in 2010, to eventually becoming one of the garden’s coordinators. “I don’t think anyone had any idea it would become this big but it was what the neighborhood wanted,” she says. “The lots where the homes were taken down were becoming eyesores so a beautiful green space seemed like a logical idea, especially one that could provide food since Millvale did not have a grocery store.” The community still lacks a full service grocer, a gap that Rudar and the other gardeners work diligently to fill. Along with supplying fresh snacks grown in the garden, such as carrots, for the Millvale Library’s youth summer programs, the group also started selling produce to seniors living at Lloyd McBride Court at very low cost and with a great response from the residents there. Most recently, the garden is working with 412 Food Rescue to donate excess produce for meals to be made at 412’s new community kitchen that will also be delivered to the senior living facility. 

Even after a decade of experience, Rudar and the other gardeners are still learning and face challenges with each new season, be it adequate planning in the winter for the year ahead, or finding times that work for everyone (spoiler, Rudar says: that doesn’t exist!). “So many people are gung-ho in the spring and can’t wait to plant. And then it gets hot, the bugs come, and some of the excitement fades, when it’s really time to plant some more!”

 For Rudar though, the victories far outweigh the challenges that may arise. One of the most rewarding things she observes is “people connecting who would not normally cross paths. It really does become an extended family,” she notes. Apart from the most obvious benefit that the garden provides the food grown there Rudar champions its therapeutic benefits.The green space provides an opportunity for people to come together and enjoy themselves at a slower pace outside the normal pressures of their day, she explains. The garden’s youngest grower, a sophomore in high school, came out of her house near the garden one day, lamenting how bored she was. “She’s been coming out ever since and tending to a plot all summer,” Rudar says.

Rudar, second from right, last month during PA Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding’s visit to Pittsburgh for PA Urban Ag Week. Pictured outside the garden’s hoop house.

When it comes to the garden’s next ten years, Rudar has big dreams. “I would love to see people in Millvale supported from work in the garden,” she says. Sustainability is a key focus for The Gardens of Millvale. Whether it be increasing sustainable agriculture practices, such as crop rotation and integrated pest management, or becoming financially independent, Rudar is thinking about it. A couple of the gardeners are currently looking into regulating temperature in the hoop house to make it feasible to grow (and sell) seedlings, creating an income source for the garden.

More than anything else, The Gardens of Millvale facilitates connections among residents and pride in the Millvale community. Even the most skeptical of neighbors have been turned around by the garden and group’s welcoming nature. “I’ve had a number of people tell me that they chose to buy homes on this street specifically because of its proximity to the garden”, Rudar says. “It’s become what Zaheen (referring to Millvale Sustainability Coordinator, Zaheen Hussain) calls ‘Millvale’s Central Park’,” she continues, for its leisurely appeal, positive effect on property values, and general community hub that it represents. 

Interested in visiting The Gardens of Millvale and seeing this amazing community green space for yourself? Join us at Grist House Craft Brewery in Millvale on Thursday, August 29 for Garden Get Down to celebrate 10 years of community garden programming with Grow Pittsburgh! Your ticket to the event includes a guided tour of the garden, just a block away from the brewery.